Russo's Old 'Magic' Shines In Wry New Novel

200 cover 'Cape Magic'
That Old Cape Magic
By Richard Russo
Hardcover, 272 pages
Knopf
List Price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt.

Richard Russo's glistening, new chambered nautilus of a novel is called That Old Cape Magic, but it might just as easily have been dubbed Two Weddings and a Funeral. That alternate title gives you an idea of its brazenly contrived plot structure. Part 1 opens on our middle-aged hero, a former screenwriter named Jack Griffin, who's driving to a wedding on Cape Cod. Nestled in the trunk of Griffin's car is an urn filled with his father's ashes. Griffin and his parents had always spent the summers of his childhood on the Cape, so Griffin has resolved that, as long as he's going back for this wedding, he might as well bring the urn along and find a time to wade out into the briny deep and give dad the old heave-ho.

In Part 2 of the novel, a year has passed, and Griffin's life has come unmoored. It's once again summer, and Griffin is driving alone northward (up to Maine this time) for another wedding — his only daughter's. Two urns are now wedged into opposite sides of his car trunk.

If, as a reader, you give yourself over to the delights of artifice — to Russo's tight variations on a few themes; to the cyclical returns to season and place; and to the revelations offered up by a slim cast of characters — you'll love, as I did, this pared-down Russo. That Old Cape Magic, after all, is a novel of late middle age when, instead of "lighting out for the territory," characters stumble along well-trod paths. Griffin, who's given to wry rumination, puts it better: He characterizes late middle age as "a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming."

One of the big things that Griffin fails to see coming is the shaking up of his marriage to Joy, his wife of some 30-odd years. Unlike Griffin who, as a typical Russo protagonist, is smart, wistful and depressed, Joy is that rarest of creatures: an intelligent person inclined toward contentment. She's happy with her family and her work. "[F]or Joy, [Griffin marvels in dismay] settled wasn't the same as settling."

Richard Russo i i

Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Empire Falls. hide caption

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Richard Russo

Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Empire Falls.

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The other big thing that neither Griffin, nor, I think, Russo, could anticipate is how Griffin's parents (who are residing in those separate urns by the second half of the novel) just arrogantly stroll into this story and run away with it. Like a lot of angry people, they're filled with lots of energy, and here they're like the ghosts in Topper, constantly yakking away in Griffin's head. The fact that they were both academics — English professors no less — means that irony is the default mode for all their pontifications.

Readers familiar with Russo's wonderful 1997 novel, Straight Man, will already know that he's a whiz at academic satire and, clearly, he has fun here returning to the inexhaustible topic of academics behaving badly. Griffin's parents were Ivy League grads who found jobs together at a large state university in the "Mid-[bleeping]-west," where they were trapped by what they (ironically) dubbed the process of "promotion and tether." To console themselves, they had numerous affairs and splurged on summer vacations at the Cape. And every summer, as they drove over the Sagamore Bridge onto the Cape with the young Griffin in the back seat, they would sing "That Old Black Magic," (of course, ironically) substituting "Cape" for "Black."

To lay his parents to rest, Griffin has to face how they've deeply and mostly destructively wormed their way into his adult life. That's the gist of the story here, but because this is Richard Russo writing and not some sentimental hack, the epiphanies are droll and muted. Here's one of my favorites: Griffin is in a cocktail lounge on the Cape, and he and a friendly middle-aged woman next to him are trying to decipher a sign above the bar that looks like it's written in Middle English. She insists it has to mean something, and Griffin thinks to himself:

"How ... did you get to be this woman's age and still believe ... that everything meant something? She was obviously one of those people who just soldiered on, determined to believe whatever gave them comfort in the face of all contrary evidence. And maybe that wasn't so dumb. The attraction of cynicism was that it so often put you in the right, as if being right led directly to happiness."

Whatever Griffin is drinking at that bar, it's working for him. I'll have a double.

Excerpt: 'That Old Cape Magic'

Cover: 'That Old Cape Magic'
That Old Cape Magic
By Richard Russo
Hardcover, 272 pages
Knopf
List Price: $25.95

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

A Finer Place

Though the digital clock on the bedside table in his hotel room read 5:17, Jack Griffin, suddenly wide awake, knew he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep. He'd allowed himself to drift off too early the night before. On the heels of wakefulness came an unpleasant realization, that what he hadn't wanted to admit yesterday, even to himself, was now all too clear in the solitary, predawn dark. He should have swallowed his petulance and waited the extra day for Joy.

It had been their long-established habit to flee the campus as soon as Griffin taught his last class. Usually, they hopped on the Freedom Trail (his term for I- 95), drove to New York and treated themselves by checking into a good hotel. During the day he would evaluate his small mountain of student portfolios while Joy shopped or otherwise amused herself, and then, evenings, they'd catch up on movies and go to good restaurants. The whole thing reminded him of the early years of their marriage back in L.A. It cost a small fortune, but there was something about spending money they didn't really have that made him optimistic about more coming in — which was how it had worked in L.A. — and it got him through the portfolios.

This year Kelsey's Cape Cod wedding had royally screwed up their plans, making New York impractical, though he'd been willing to substitute Boston. But Joy, assuming that thanks to the wedding all the usual bets were off, had messed things up further by scheduling meetings on the day after his last class. "Just go," she said when he expressed his annoyance at the way things were working out. "Have a boys' night out in Boston and I'll meet you on the Cape." He'd squinted at this proposal. Didn't you need more than one to have a boys' night out? Or had Joy meant it to be singular, one boy celebrating his boyness? Was that how she'd understood the phrase all her life, as singular? Joy's relationship to the English language was not without glitches. She was forever mixing metaphors, claiming that something was "a tough line to hoe." Row to hoe? Line to walk? Her sisters, Jane and June, were even worse, and when corrected all three would narrow their eyes dangerously and identically. If they'd had a family motto, it would have been You Know Perfectly Well What I Mean.

In any event his wife's suggestion that he go on without her had seemed less than sincere, which was why he decided to call her bluff. "All right," he said, "that's what I'll do," expecting her to say, Fine, if it means that much to you, I'll reschedule the meetings. But she hadn't said that, even when she saw him packing his bag, and so he'd discovered a truth that other men probably knew already — that once you'd packed a bag in front of a woman there was no possibility of unpacking, or of not going and taking the damn bag with you.

Worse, Joy, who preferred to watch movies on DVD rather than in a theater, as they were meant to be seen, had given him a list of films he was forbidden to see without her, and of course these were the only ones worth seeing. He'd spent an hour looking through the restaurant guides provided by the hotel, but couldn't decide on one, or even on what kind of food he wanted. Griffin had no trouble making these sorts of decisions when she was around, but for some reason, when he had only himself to please, he often couldn't make up his mind. He told himself this was just the result of being married for thirty years, that part of the decision-making process was imagining what his wife would enjoy. Okay, but more and more he found himself stalled, in the middle of whatever room he happened to be standing in, and he realized that this had been, of course, his father's classic pose. In the end Griffin had ordered room service and watched a crappy made-for-TV movie, the kind he and Tommy, his old partner, had been reduced to writing that last year or two in L.A. before he'd gotten his teaching gig and moved back East with Joy and their daughter, Laura. He'd fallen asleep before the first commercial, confident he could predict not only the movie's outcome but also half its dialogue.

In order not to dwell on yesterday's mistakes, he decided to put today in motion by calling down to the bell captain for his car. Twenty minutes later, dressed and showered, he'd checked out of his Back Bay hotel. The whole of Boston fit neatly into the rectangle of his rearview mirror, and by the time the Sagamore Bridge, one of two that spanned the Cape Cod Canal, hove into view, the sky was silver in the east, and he felt the last remnants of yesterday's prevarications begin to lift like the patchy fog he'd been in and out of since leaving the city. The Sagamore arched dramatically upward in the middle, helping to pull the sun over the horizon, and though the air was far too cool, Griffin pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and put the convertible's top down, feeling truly off the reservation for the first time since leaving home in Connecticut. There was something vaguely thrilling about not being where his wife thought he was. She liked to know what people were up to, and not just him. She called Laura most mornings, her brain still lazy with sleep, to ask "So . . . what's on the agenda for you today?" She also phoned both of her sisters several times a week and knew that June was having her hair done tomorrow morning and that Jane had put on five new pounds and was starting a diet. She even knew what new folly her idiot twin brothers, Jared and Jason, were engaged in. To Griffin, an only child, such behavior was well over the line that separated the merely inexplicable from the truly perverse.

Zipping along Route 6, Griffin realized he was humming "That Old Black Magic," the song his parents had sung ironically — both university English professors, that's how they did most things — every time they crossed the Sagamore, substituting Cape for black. When he was growing up, they'd spent part of every summer on the Cape. He could always tell what kind of year it had been, moneywise, by when and where they stayed. One particularly prosperous year they'd rented a small house in Chatham for the month of August. Another year, when faculty salaries were frozen, all they could afford was Sandwich in June. His parents had been less wed to each other than to a shared sense of grievance over being exiled eleven months of every year to the "Mid-fucking-west," a phrase they didn't say so much as spit. They had good academic careers, though perhaps not the stellar ones that might have been predicted, given their Ivy League pedigree. Both had grown up in the Rust Belt of western New York State, his mother in suburban Rochester, his father in Buffalo, the children of lower-middle-class, white-collar parents. At Cornell, where they'd both gone on scholarship, they'd met not only each other but also the kind of friends who'd invited them home for holidays in Wellesley and Westchester and for summer vacations in the Hamptons or on the Cape. They told their parents they could earn more money there, which was true, but in fact they'd have done anything to avoid returning to their parents' depressing upstate homes. At Yale, where they did their graduate work, they came to believe they were destined for research positions at one of the other Ivys, at least until the market for academics headed south and they had to take what they could get — the pickings even slimmer for a couple — and that turned out to be a huge state university in Indiana.

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward? But they'd had little choice but to hunker down and make the best of their wretched timing, so they dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they'd be ready. They feared the Princeton and Dartmouth ships had probably sailed for good, but that still left the Swarthmores and Vassars of the world as safe if not terribly exciting havens. This much, at least, was surely their due. And before going up for promotion and tenure (or "promotion and tether," in their parlance) in the Midfucking-west, they'd each had opportunities — she at Amherst, he at Bowdoin — but never together. So they stayed put in their jobs and their marriage, each terrified, Griffin now suspected, that the other, unshackled, would succeed and escape to the kind of academic post (an endowed chair!) that would complete the misery of the one left behind. To make their unhappy circumstances more tolerable, they had affairs and pretended to be deeply wounded when these came to light. His father had been a genuine serial adulterer, whereas his mother simply refused to lag behind in this or anything else.

Of course all of this was adult understanding. As a boy, the reluctant witness to his parents' myriad quarrels and recriminations, Griffin had imagined that he must be the one keeping them together. It was his mother who eventually disabused him of this bizarre notion. At his and Joy's wedding reception, actually. But by then they had finally divorced — even spite, apparently, was not eternal — and she'd narrowly won the race to remarry. In an ecumenical mood, she ventured outside the English department for her second husband, a philosopher named Bart, whom she'd quickly dubbed "Bartleby." At the reception, half in her cups, she'd assured Griffin, "Good heavens, no, it wasn't you. What kept us together was 'That Old Cape Magic.' Remember how we used to sing it every year on the Sagamore?" She then turned to Bartleby. "One glorious month, each summer," she explained. "Sun. Sand. Water. Gin. Followed by eleven months of misery." Then back to Griffin. "But that's about par for most marriages, I think you'll find." The I think you'll find, he understood, was of course meant to suggest that in her view, his own marital arithmetic was likely to be much the same. For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.

Griffin was about to respond when his father reappeared with Claudia, his former graduate student and new wife. They'd disappeared briefly after the ceremony, to quarrel or make love, he had no idea. "I swear to God," his mother said, "if he buys that child a house on the Cape — and I do mean anywhere on the Cape — I may have to murder him." Her face brightened at a pleasant thought. "You might actually prove useful," she told Bartleby, then turned back to Griffin. "Your stepfather collects locked-room murder mysteries. Death by curare, that sort of thing. You can figure something out, can't you? Just make sure I'm in full view of everyone in the drawing room when the fat cow hits the deck, writhing in excruciating pain." She knew perfectly well, of course, that Griffin's father didn't have the money to buy Claudia (who was more zaftig than fat) or anyone else a house on the Cape, of course. She'd made sure of that by beggaring him in the divorce settlement, but the possibility — what of, that he might purchase a winning Lotto ticket? — still clearly worried her.

To Griffin, now fifty-five, roughly the same age his parents had been when he and Joy married, the Cape place-names were still magical: Falmouth, Woods Hole, Barnstable, Dennis, Orleans, Harwich. They made a boy of him again and put him in the backseat of his parents' car, where he'd spent much of his boyhood, unbelted, resting his arms on the front seat, trying to hear what they, who never made any attempt to include him in their conversations, were talking about. It wasn't so much that he was interested in their front-seat conversations as aware that decisions that impacted him were being made up there, and if privy to these hatching plans he might offer an opinion. Unfortunately, the fact that his chin was resting on the seat back seemed to preclude this. Most of what he overheard wasn't really worth the effort anyway. "Wellfleet," his mother might say, studying the road atlas. "Why haven't we ever tried Wellfleet?" By the time Griffin was a high school freshman, which marked the last of their Cape vacations, they'd rented just about everywhere. Each summer, when they handed over the keys at the end of their stay, the rental agent always asked if they wanted to book it for next year, but they always said no, which made Griffin wonder if the perfect spot they were searching for really existed. Perhaps, he concluded, just looking was sufficient in and of itself.

While he roamed the beach unattended, full of youthful energy and freedom, his parents spent sunny afternoons lying on the sand with their "guilty pleasures," books they'd have been embarrassed to admit to their colleagues they'd ever heard of. They were on vacation, they claimed, not just from the Mid-fucking-west but also from the literary canon they'd sworn to uphold. His mother's taste ran to dark, disturbing thrillers and cynical spy novels. "That," she would say, turning the book's last page with evident satisfaction, "was truly twisted." His father alternated between literary pornography and P. G. Wodehouse, enjoying both thoroughly, as if Naked Lunch and Bertie Wooster Sees It Through were intended as companion pieces.

The only thing they both read — indeed, studied as intently as each year's Modern Language Association job listings — was the real-estate guide. Unwilling to give the other a first look, they always picked up two copies as soon as they arrived and wrote their names on the covers so they'd know which was which and whose fault it was if one got lost. A house here was part of their longrange, two-part plan to escape the Mid-fucking-west. First they would find real jobs back East, where they'd locate a suitable apartment to rent. This would allow them to save money for a house on the Cape, where they'd spend summers and holidays and the occasional long weekend, until of course they retired — early if they could swing it — and lived on there full-time, reading and writing op-eds and, who knew, maybe even trying their hand at a novel.

A single day was usually all it took for each of them to plow through the hundreds of listings in the fat real-estate guide and place each into one of two categories — Can't Afford It or Wouldn't Have It As a Gift — before tossing the booklet aside in disgust, because everything was more expensive this year than last. But the very next day his father would set Jeeves aside and take another look. "Page twenty-seven," he'd say, and Griffin's mother would set down her Ripley and rummage for her copy in the beach bag. "Bear with me, now," he'd continue. Or, "Some things would have to go right" — meaning a big merit raise or a new university-press book contract — "but . . ." And then he'd explain why a couple of the listings they'd quickly dismissed the day before just maybe could be made to work. Later in the month, on a rainy day, they'd go so far as to look at a house or two at the low end of the Can't Afford It category, but the realtors always intuited at a glance that Griffin's parents were just tire kickers. The house they wanted was located in a future only they could see. For people who dealt largely in dreams, his father was fond of observing, realtors were a surprisingly unromantic bunch, like card counters in a Vegas casino.

The drive back to the Mid-fucking-west was always brutal, his parents barely speaking to each other, as if suddenly recalling last year's infidelities, or maybe contemplating whom they'd settle for this year. Sex, if you went by Griffin's parents, definitely took a backseat to real estate on the passion gauge.

Excerpted from That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo Copyright 2009 by Richard Russo. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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