A Martha’s Vineyard mystery from Richard Russo
Richard Russo is our great chronicler of men of a certain age. Examples abound, but the Platonic ideal remains Sully, the irascible protagonist of Russo’s novel Nobody’s Fool (1993) and its sequel, Everybody’s Fool, from 2016. You will find no better portrait of the aging American male, rivaled only, perhaps, by Paul Newman’s performance in the film adaptation of the original novel from 1994.
In his latest novel, Chances Are…, Russo introduces three more men of this type (all of them 66 years old, college class of 1971) and places them in a summer house on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, in the town of Chilmark, Mass. In a surprising twist, at least for Russo fans who may be used to longer, looser tales, the plot is set into rapid motion by the mystery of a young girl’s disappearance. A detective story is not what we have come to expect from Russo, who generally operates at the same, easy-going speed as his male protagonists, but he shows himself to be well versed in the basic requirements of the genre.
The last time these three men were on the island together was shortly after their graduation from Minerva College, a tony liberal arts school located on the southern coast of Connecticut. Unlike many of their classmates, Mickey, Lincoln and Teddy did not come from money, so they worked as “hashers” at a campus sorority, waiting tables and cleaning pots in the kitchen, and had limited social interaction with the young ladies of Theta house.
The exception was Jacy, a free-spirited daughter of the WASP establishment who enjoys hanging out with the self-proclaimed “three musketeers.” When they all decide to spend one last weekend at Lincoln’s family house on the Vineyard, it comes as no surprise when things do not go exactly as planned.
The year being 1971, the shadow of Vietnam looms. (One of the book’s touchpoints is Jefferson’s Airplane’s song “Somebody to Love,” with its opening line, “When the truth is found to be lies….”) Mickey has a low draft number and is trying to decide whether to flee to Canada. His buddies are pushing for him to go, but he feels a tug of loyalty to his recently deceased father, who told him that if he did not serve, some other poor kid would have to.
The year being 1971, the shadow of Vietnam looms.
This is familiar territory. People my age (Generation X) grew up with many stories, both in books and on film, of the conflicted young men sent off to serve their nation in Southeast Asia. It is a tribute to Russo’s skills as a portraitist that these debates do not seem stale. In his hands, Mickey, Lincoln, Teddy and Jacy are just kids buffeted by the winds of history.
The three men return to Chilmark in 2015 as Lincoln is deciding whether to sell the family house. They are all haunted by the disappearance of Jacy, who left in 1971 without saying goodbye and was never seen or heard from again. It turns out there was once a time when people could be out of touch for weeks and even months and no one assumed anything bad had happened to them.
Teddy, Mickey and Lincoln are full of flaws, but Russo does not judge them.
Together again, the three musketeers return to familiar patterns. “Was this what we wanted from our oldest friends?” Russo writes in one of the book’s many wise passages. “Reassurance that the world we remember so fondly exists? That it hasn’t been replaced by a reality we’re less fully committed to?”
Lincoln is the most successful of the lot, a real estate operator who has six children and a father whose influence he still can’t quit. (“Like many fathers, Lincoln’s now had two permanent residences, one in Dunbar, Arizona, the other in his son’s head.”) Mickey is still a committed son of the ’60s, driving a motorcycle and playing rock ’n’ roll in bars. And Teddy, well, he looks something quite like a reader of this magazine. An adjunct professor, he once thought about joining a monastery, but instead opted for teaching and editing a small publishing imprint called (wait for it...) Seven Storey Books.
“To Teddy,” Russo drily notes, “it seemed that almost as many people were writing books about faith as were reading them. Most of the submissions were dreck, but a few small gems were mixed in. No new Thomas Merton, of course, but he hadn’t expected there would be.”
They are all haunted by the disappearance of Jacy, who left in 1971 without saying goodbye.
It is said that reading fiction can make you more empathetic, more attuned to the world inside someone else’s head. Reading Russo, this seems especially true, and not just because he creates a rich inner life for his characters. I have read many novels about characters whom I know well but do not feel a great deal of sympathy for. Teddy, Mickey and Lincoln are full of flaws, but Russo does not judge them. In fact, it could be said that he loves them as much as they love each other. Why else spend so much time in their company?
“Mickey and Lincoln, the friends of his youth? He loved them too,” he writes of Teddy. “Still. Anyway. In spite of. Exactly how he himself had always hoped to be loved. The way everyone hopes to be.”
This sentiment could seem treacly in a lesser writer’s hands, but Russo earns his moments of pathos. It helps that he is an extremely funny writer who knows that humor is the way men speak to each other, especially when they are facing moments of crisis. (It should be noted that there are also women in this novel, and not just the one who disappears. There is probably an unpublished dissertation floating around somewhere on “The Long-Suffering Women in the Novels of Richard Russo.”)
The title Chances Are… comes from a Johnny Mathis song, which Jacy, Teddy, Lincoln and Mickey sing together on the porch in Chilmark on their last, boozy night together. The significance of the choice does not become apparent until later in the story, when Russo has a chance to muse on free will and fate, what we can change in life and what we cannot. “What made the contest between fate and free will so lopsided,” he writes, “was that human beings invariably mistook one for the other, hurling themselves furiously against that which is fixed and immutable while ignoring the very things over which they actually had some control.”
It is no coincidence that the narrative returns on more than one occasion to the room in the sorority house where they all watched the draft numbers announced. For their generation more than most, the fates exercised a strong hand.
The plot developments come at a quick pace. This is a book you can easily read in an afternoon or two in your beach chair. On one or two occasions, the plot veered a little too close to soap opera for my taste, but I am getting a little older and pickier about the kinds of things that I like. Richard Russo would understand.