Richard Russo’s new novel appears deceptively simple, after 2007’s Dickensian Bridge of Sighs. That book took over 500 pages to tell a story spanning 50 years of three families in Russo’s home territory of upstate New York, the setting for his Pulitzer prize-winning Empire Falls (2001) and several of his earlier books, including Mohawk and Nobody’s Fool.
That Old Cape Magic departs from Russo’s chronicling of the decline of the industrial Northeast, returning in a way to the academic territory of his comic novel Straight Man (1997), though the new novel’s scope is much greater. Jack Griffin, its protagonist, is a professor of screenwriting at a small college, but don’t expect another English-department farce.
Framed by two weddings a year apart—one on Cape Cod, one on the coast of Maine—the book has an almost Aristotelian unity and focus. (The weddings themselves are parallel, down to an elderly, wheel-chaired guest at each.) The year also begins and ends with the death of one of Griffin’s long-divorced parents; and as he navigates the coast with first his father’s ashes in the trunk and then his mother’s as well, Griffin relives his past and considers his future. The year includes a leave from teaching to shop screenplays and made-for-TV rewrites with Tommy, his old Hollywood writing partner, while Griffin and Joy, his wife of over 30 years, undergo a trial separation. During this year, too, Griffin tends to his dying mother in the Indiana town where both his parents were English professors.
The tightness of the novel’s structure belies the profound contemplation of family—childhood, parenthood, friendship, marriage—packed into this crucial year of Griffin’s life, a year when he undergoes what nowadays we still call a “mid-life crisis,” even when it happens to someone who is 57.
Griffin is haunted by his parents’ much vaunted “ironical” perspective on everything in life, especially their disdain for all things not Ivy League, including their own academic careers in the Midwest. Despite having renounced their snobbery, Griffin often seems to echo what would have been his parents’ opinion of, for example, his middlebrow, Republican in-laws’ bookless “home” in a gated community in California. Griffin has in a way achieved the goal—tenured professorship at a good New England college—that eluded his jaded and frankly unpleasant parents. His two trips to the beaches of the Northeast are filled with memories of his parents’ only affirmative experience: their annual stays at various rental cottages on the Cape, where every year they would try to recapture “That Old Cape Magic,” despite their mutual infidelities and appalling indifference to Griffin, their only child. “One glorious month, each summer,” says Griffin’s mother. “Sun. Sand. Water. Gin. Followed by eleven months of misery.”
In contrast to the parents’ nomadic existence renting sabbatical houses, Griffin and Joy have settled down in Joy’s dream house, old and rambling, in Connecticut. But despite his allegiance to the optimistic Joy, Griffin cannot banish the sarcastic parental voices from his head. Introduced to Griffin at the second wedding, Joy’s boss, the new dean of admissions, remarks that he has just “come on board,” and Griffin’s (late) mother interjects, “Come on board? What is he, a pirate?”
Russo uses several forms to tell his emotionally fraught story. Straight narrative is interlaced with scenes written out in the form of one of Griffin’s screenplays or with Griffin’s dying mother’s “Morphine Narrative,” a surprising, alternate version of the story of her marriage that her son can-not quite believe. We are even teased with the promise of an epistolary novel to be embedded near the end of the text.
Throughout the year, Griffin is also writing and revising a short story (a new medium for him), “The Summer of the Brownings.” It recalls his own lost “Cape Magic,” the one summer when at age 12 he actually made a friend. Getting to know the entire Browning family, who seem not to know what irony is, enhances the starkness of Griffin’s emotional deprivation. By shaping the experience into fiction, Griffin converts what really must have been a loss of innocence into an exercise in nostalgia.
Over the year Griffin must come to terms with his complicated relationship with his parents as well as his more simple relationship with Joy—and joy. In a rare moment of moral clarity, Griffin’s mother pays a backhanded compliment to her granddaughter Laura, but she could just as well be describing Joy: “She’s so...kind, isn’t she?... She makes me almost... ashamed.” (She gets promptly back on course, however, continuing, “She’s not brilliant, though, is she?”) Gradually, Griffin learns to agree with Joy that he has had “too little faith—in the world, in her, in himself, in their good lives.”
Only completing this year of, well, mourning—and publishing the story about the Brownings—can allow Griffin to recall with almost no trace of irony another of his family’s annual rituals, their hapless search for the perfect Christmas tree, and himself lying under it, peering up at the branches, “imagining other worlds...among all the blinking lights and shiny ornaments.”
And then he can silence his parents’ voices and scatter their ashes.