Richard Russo’s new novel, “Chances Are . . .,” opens with a cascade of charm. Three old friends, all 66 years old, arrive at Martha’s Vineyard for a last hurrah. Russo introduces them one at a time, setting each man in a nest of youthful anecdotes that have been polished to a high luster. But if this is a story steeped in nostalgia, it’s also a story about the inevitable disruption of nostalgia.
Russo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 novel, “Empire Falls,” has become our senior correspondent on masculinity. No one captures so well the gruff affection of men or the friction between guys from different classes. By some accident of fate, the three men at the center of “Chances Are . . .” were classmates at a small Connecticut college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. One way or another, they all managed to stay out of the Vietnam War, but the resin of their lives was set in that turbulent era, hardening into the cherished amber of friendship.
“Chances Are . . .” rotates gently through these characters — each one so appealing that you hate to let him go, though you’ll quickly feel just as fond of the next one:
●Lincoln, the successful one, is a commercial real estate agent in Las Vegas.
●Teddy, the broken one, is the editor of a small religious press.
●Mickey, the hard-living one, is a musician who still rides a Harley.
Now 70, Russo clearly knows the pleasures and perils of retrospection, and he’s constructed a novel about the way the past constantly bleeds into the present. Lincoln has invited his oldest friends to the island for a long weekend because he’s about to sell the home that’s been in his family for decades. Crucially, this is also where these three guys gathered after graduation, 44 years ago, for a weekend that changed their lives. None of them will admit it out loud, but this is an emotionally treacherous vacation for them all.
One of the great pleasures of “Chances Are . . .” stems from how gracefully Russo moves the story along two time frames, creating that uncanny sense of memories that feel simultaneously near and remote. The title comes from a classic Johnny Mathis song that Mickey mocks, but it also serves as a marker of the novel’s theme about the way random events — from college encounters to the draft lottery — can cement a life’s direction.
As must always be the case, the years have worn these old friends differently. Lincoln is still married to his college sweetheart, and though the Great Recession cut deeply, his business survived. Teddy has lived an almost monastic life, buffeted by depression and other ailments. And Mickey’s rock-and-roll antics have wracked his body. But together again on Martha’s Vineyard, their old camaraderie dissolves those differences and transports them back to that golden moment when their lives were flush with possibility.
Lincoln’s vacation house is a madeleine dipped in beer. It’s clear from the start that their memories of that old post-graduation weekend are tinged with a sorrow beyond the usual pain of nostalgia. There’s a fourth character here, most notable for her absence. Jacy Calloway, a fellow college student, was a wealthy wild child, loved by all of them — a kind of Lady Brett Ashley in this circle of drinking buddies. She came with them to the island house on that momentous weekend four decades ago and then vanished without a trace.
“Chances Are . . .” is best when it focuses on that tantalizing interplay of past and present, the insistent way that adolescent experiences and parental expectations continue to circumscribe our hopes and dreams. Though they’re all of retirement age, Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are still negotiating with their fathers — dead or alive, makes no difference. Arguments about moral failings and missed opportunities have a shelf life longer than Twinkies.
Naturally, returning to the island with old friends evokes strong memories of the missing girl they all loved and lost over that Labor Day weekend in 1971. But rather improbably, Lincoln decides to start playing Barnaby Jones and track down Jacy’s killer. A trip to the island newspaper office leads to a dying policeman who just might be able to catch the faint scent of the cold case. By this point, “Chances Are . . .” isn’t a cozy mystery per se, but it’s just one cat away.
What’s more disappointing, though, is the way the novel doubles down on the hackneyed cliche of the tragic, unattainable beauty. As college students, these smitten guys never really knew Jacy, and four decades later on Fantasy Island, they don’t seem to understand the fundamental immaturity of their regard. Even in their 60s, these guys are still musing about what might have been: Jacy is “a fever dream.” They hear “her siren call.” It’s one thing for these characters to celebrate their silly Three Musketeers chivalry, but the novel seems equally determined to dress them up in stale romanticism.
Unfortunately, Russo tries to complicate our understanding of Jacy by diving deeper into the mystery of her disappearance. That results in a long section of increasingly melodramatic revelations involving a host of offstage characters. But this isn’t storytelling; it’s gossip.
Once the novel gets back to the present day, it regains a more nuanced and satisfying tone. Lincoln, Mickey and especially Teddy are allowed a second chance at life they never expected. It’s disappointing, though, to see how firmly such complexity is denied the female characters. Yet Russo is an undeniably endearing writer, and chances are this story will draw you back to the most consequential moments in your own life.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Aug. 9 at 7 p.m., Richard Russo will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Richard Russo
Knopf. 320 pp. $26.95