TERRY GROSS, host:
For a lot of people, summer is a time of returning to familiar vacation spots. In his latest novel "That Old Cape Magic," award-winning novelist Richard Russo writes about one man's return to a beloved retreat. And Russo himself returns to some trusty subjects and targets.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Russo's preoccupations may seem familiar but they never get stale. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: 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 one 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 two 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 fail 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. For Joy, Griffin marvels in dismay, settled wasn't the same as settling.
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 have a lot of energy and here they're like the ghosts in "Topper," they are 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 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 Midwest, 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 backseat, they would sing "That Old Black Magic," ironically of course, 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.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "That Old Cape Magic" by Richard Russo.
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