In novels like his Pulitzer Prize-winning EMPIRE FALLS and BRIDGE OF SIGHS, Richard Russo has established himself as the Charles Dickens of lower middle class life in the dying towns of upstate New York. His latest novel reaches back to the territory he visited in 1997’s STRAIGHT MAN, and the mixed results make us long for the depth of his more recent works.
Russo’s protagonist, Jack Griffin, is a 57-year-old tenured English professor at a small liberal arts college in Connecticut. His career as a Hollywood screenwriter is two decades behind him, but he has never shed the itch to ditch his comfortable, quiet life and return there. That lingering unease comes into sharp focus in two trips to the beach, the first to Cape Cod to celebrate the wedding of his daughter’s childhood best friend, and the second, a year later, for his own daughter’s wedding in Maine. By the time of the latter, Griffin and his wife, Joy, an assistant dean of admissions at the college where he teaches, have separated. He can’t shake his resentment over her long-ago infatuation with Tommy, his former screenwriting partner, and she resists his desire to abandon the security of academia that for her represents the fulfillment of their Cape Cod honeymoon pact that Griffin sarcastically entitles the “Great Truro Accord.”
Griffin’s angst is symbolized by the fact that, when he arrives for the first wedding, he’s been carting his father’s ashes around in the wheel well of his trunk for nine months (when he returns for his daughter’s wedding, his mother’s urn is there, too). His hapless attempt to dispose of his father’s remains one foggy morning is one of the novel’s two slapstick set pieces (the other a mishap on the eve of his daughter’s wedding that sends several guests to the emergency room) that give the impression that perhaps Russo’s intentions are less serious here than they might otherwise appear.
Griffin’s parents, two Yale-educated English professors, perform something of the role of a Greek chorus in the novel. He spares few details of their dissatisfaction with academic careers (played out mostly in territory they refer to as the “Mid-f**king-West”) that never matched the brilliant success they envisioned for themselves, along with their casual infidelities. Their lives are echoed, on a more pallid scale, in his own, a fact Griffin is honest enough to recognize: “The problem seemed to be that you could put a couple thousand miles between yourself and your parents, and make clear to them that in doing so you meant to reject their values, but how did you distance yourself from your own inheritance?”
It’s that feeling that Griffin’s life isn’t much more than a warmed-over version of his parents’ that prevents us from fully engaging with him. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to compare the character with epic protagonists like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom or Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, but for all the pleasures to be derived from Russo’s skill at creating the supporting cast, the modest irritations that burden Griffin simply don’t offer sufficient heft to sustain our interest in their resolution over the course of even this relatively brief novel. Yes, he has unresolved issues with his parents. And yes, he’s troubled by his wife’s old attraction to Tommy. But none of this rises to a level that ever seems to justify the emotional black cloud that dogs him. It’s easy to empathize with Joy’s sentiment that “his unhappiness had exhausted her, that it would be a relief not to have to deal with it anymore.”
In an interview in connection with the publication of the book, Russo revealed that the novel began as a short story. Indeed, Griffin tells an affecting tale, “The Summer of the Brownings,” based on his visit to the Cape as a 12-year-old, that he wrote years earlier and now fusses with, despairing over the prospect of publication. Perhaps this finished product illustrates some of the perils of making the transition from one literary form to another. THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC’s trip into one man’s less-than-compelling mid-life crisis is a pleasant enough way to while away a few hours on a sunny beach this August. But it leaves us hoping for better things from an author we know is eminently capable of them.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (email@example.com) on January 23, 2011
That Old Cape Magic