By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC
By Richard Russo
Knopf. 261 pp. $25.95
Richard Russo has written a novel for people who are terrified of becoming their parents, which is to say for everybody. The misanthropic hero of "That Old Cape Magic" jitters with the anxiety of influence, repelled and attracted to his mom and dad like Woody Allen playing Hamlet. After those sprawling epics of American life "Empire Falls" and "Bridge of Sighs," Russo's new book seems especially intimate, a dyspeptic romantic comedy from a Pulitzer Prize winner who catches the bittersweet humor of our common neuroses.
The book's two-part structure is simple and elegant: two weddings, a year apart, the first on Cape Cod, the second in Maine. Russo's focus in both parts is on Jack Griffin, a 57-year-old English professor who's having a "middle-age meltdown." Even while the wedding march plays for members of the younger generation, he's busy fumbling his own 34-year marriage. Griffin loves his wife, but "his dissatisfaction had become palpable." He's bored with teaching, and he hankers after the excitement of his Hollywood writing days. His bigger problem, though, is that he still harbors enough "pathological resentment" toward his parents for a therapists' convention. He's been carting his father's ashes around in the trunk of his car for nine months, waiting for just the right moment to let go of the mortal remains of the man who drove him crazy. And meanwhile, his 85-year-old mother keeps heckling him from her nursing home.
It's a sign of Russo's comic genius that these two hilariously acerbic parents -- one on the phone, the other in an urn -- just about steal the show. In their prime, they were frustrated academics who toiled away at second-rate Midwestern colleges, cheated on each other and treated everyone, including their only son, with disdain. Some of the novel's best set pieces describe their disastrous affairs and the shared bitterness that somehow kept them coming back to each other. "They were a single entity," Griffin remarks, "with the same contemptuous mind."
American white guys may have no better ally in the world of fiction than Richard Russo. His popular, critically acclaimed novels manage to expose the fragile egos and embarrassing foibles of men while still making them seem essentially lovable. Poor Griffin doesn't want to be a jerk; he just can't help it sometimes -- when the perfect gibe bounces on his tongue like a coin he's got to spend.
Although this is a much smaller canvas than Russo has worked on in recent years, what "That Old Cape Magic" lacks in breadth and plot momentum it makes up for with psychological nuance about the ties that bind -- and snap. It's a marvelous portrayal of the strands of affection and irritation that run through a family, entangling in-laws and children's crushes and even old friends. Griffin has concentrated for so long on separating himself from both his wife's parents and his own that he can't see just how thoroughly he's picked up their pet phrases, their pretentious attitudes, even their congenital unhappiness. "You could put a couple thousand miles between yourself and your parents," Griffin says, "and make clear to them that in doing so you mean to reject their values, but how did you distance yourself from your own inheritance?"
Like Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor" earlier this year, Russo's novel focuses largely on a favorite vacation spot, a place that became hallowed through repeated visits with family. The two novels offer black-and-white versions of a young boy's back-seat excitement as the car passes over the bridge into a special world of freedom. But how reliable are the youthful memories we carry around with us? What monuments of resentment have we built on the shaky foundation of misunderstandings and misimpressions? For Griffin's parents, Cape Cod offered paradise "one glorious month, each summer," but he has the troubling sense that "the perfect spot they were searching for" didn't really exist. And now he's sensing the same restlessness may have infected him, too, leaving him pining for that magical place that will satisfy all his desires. Unfortunately, he realizes, returning to one's youth and escaping one's parents are mutually exclusive fantasies.
The shelf of books about middle-aged guys going through midlife crises is long, of course, but Russo threads more comedy through this introspective genre than we get from John Updike, Richard Ford or Chang-rae Lee. He's a master of the comic quip and the ridiculous situation. And as he's shown before, particularly in "Straight Man," one of the funniest college novels ever written, he can be a clown when he wants to. The climactic scene of "That Old Cape Magic" is a no-holds-barred bit of Steve Martin-like wedding slapstick, complete with pratfalls, sucker punches and runaway wheelchairs.
"Late middle age," Griffin notes, "was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming." That's a pretty accurate description of this utterly charming novel. If you always cry at weddings, you'll cry at this -- and laugh, too.
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