Archive for the ‘Russo, Richard’ Category

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

August 12, 2009

Review copy provided by Random House

Review copy provided by

Richard Russo, one of my favorite American writers, runs into my version of the worst possible author’s dilemma in his new novel, That Old Cape Magic — the first 70 pages are so good, there is absolutely no way the rest of the book can stand up to them. In those often hilarilous opening pages, we meet Jack Griffin but, even more importantly, we meet his childhood memories of his parents, William and Mary (as you will see, no prize for catching the academic reference) and what it was like growing up in the strange environments that they called home.

William and Mary did their undergraduate degrees in English literature at Cornell, moved on to grad work at Yale and expected Ivy League appointments to follow. Instead, a slump in the academic marketplace meant they ended up in the Mid-fucking-west at an Indiana state university:

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 Princeton and Dartmouth ships had probably sailed for good, but that still left Swarthmores and Vassars 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 Mid-fucking-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.

They respond with a series of affairs — William’s of a serial variety with students, Mary mainly keeping up. Griffin always thought they had stayed together for his sake — the family –, but his mother, in her cups at his wedding reception, assures him that was not the case:

“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 (her second husband, a silent philosopher). “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.”

What a wonderful wedding reception exchange. These Griffins are something else.

I have only been to Cape Cod twice but it is small enough that those visits produce enduring memories — and Russo’s prose brings them back in spades. Even as a youth, he understands that the Cape holiday is a reflection of the economics of the previous academic year (“They never freeeze salaries two years in a row.”). In good years, William and Mary rent a cottage for a month in Chatham (at the elbow of the Cape) in August; in bad, it is a shack on an inland pond for two weeks in June. There is a constant every year, however. The first thing his parents do after crossing the Sagamore bridge is to pick up two copies of the Cape Cod real estate guide (they sign them to make sure each knows whose copy is whose) and within 24 hours every property falls into one of two categories — Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift. You only have to go to Cape Cod once to appreciate how true that is (yes, on only two visits, I have done this).

That’s enough for those first 70 pages. I can’t recall reading anything as laugh-out-loud funny in recent memory. And while the next 190 aren’t nearly as good, alas, they are still fine.

When we meet Griffin he is arriving on the Cape alone for the wedding of his daughter’s friend — his wife, Joy, is folllowing one day later, the result of a marital spat where they both stupidly dug in their heels (none of us married people have ever done that). In his trunk, Griffin has his father’s ashes. William’s body was found in the passenger seat of his car in a parking lot on the Mass Pike. Griffin assumed he was on his way to the Cape (perhaps with a student who abandoned the body?), so scattering the ashes there seems appropriate. He is a prisoner of his parents, even in his mid-fifties.

Griffin and Joy have their own Cape memories. They honeymooned at Truro (even though his wife would have preferred coastal Maine) where they framed the Great Truro Accord. The Accord said that while they would make their money in California, where Joy went to school (no grad work, however) and Griffin is a screenwriter, they would eventually move to the east Coast, ideally the Cape but Maine would be fine. Thirty-four years later (the present time of this book) Griffin is teaching screenwriting at a college in Maine, Joy is associate dean of admissions at the same college. The tensions in their marriage are about to reach a breaking point.

That Old Cape Magic comes in two parts. A year later, Griffin and Joy are back in the East, this time in Maine for the marriage of their own daughter. They are separated, not so much deliberately but by default. This time each has brought a new date. Griffin now has his mother’s ashes as well as his father’s (one in the left trunk wheel well, the other in the right) and he intends to head to Cape Cod to finally scatter them both. Before dying, his mother firmly stated that her divorced husband should be spread on the bay side, reflecting his quietness, while hers should be scattered on the more active Atlantic coast. Together, in a way, but separate.

Russo’s humor is dark, but never unfriendly. If the first part of this book was not so good, the rest would verge on brilliant — a few days after completing it, I’m happy to say that latter part is getting better in memory. It suffered in the reading only because of what preceded it.

I can’t deny that my own love of Cape Cod, from very limited exposure, infected my positive reaction to this book. Russo’s previous work (he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs is an excellent novel) has tended to focus on the decline of industrial upstate New York and the coast of Maine — this one does have a much more playful touch. I do think that there is a very good argument that he is the heir to Fitzgerald, Cheever and Updike in the way that he captures life in the northeast United States. The Kennedy’s still have their compound there (Eunice died in Hyannis hospital the day after I finished this book) and the Bushes still summer in Maine. Just as Fitzgerald, Cheever and Updike captured the importance of this part of the world in their era, Russo makes his mark in the present one.

Although, the next time I read That Old Cape Magic (and I will), I’m starting at page 70 and saving the first 69 for last. Not my advice for your first read, but definitely worth considering for your second. This is a wonderful book.

I have read a lot of books already this year — That Old Cape Magic is not the best “literary” book, but it is high on the shortlist of most enjoyable reads — and unlikely to be replaced.


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