I love Cape Cod. I’ve been going there since I was sixteen, then with my parents, now with my children (and still my parents) to the house we have rented for the last fifteen years. So you can imagine the joy I felt when I purchased Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic for my mom and my girlfriend, who both share my appreciation (love) of the sandy spit of land that juts out into the Atlantic. What I didn’t expect was the shot to the gut that is a Russo novel: lots of realizations that hit very close to home.
Richard Russo has a knack as a writer for getting the small portrait right; he’s a worker in miniature that happens to weave all of those small portraits into sprawling tapestries of novels. I liked Empire Falls, haven’t read Bridge of Sighs (it’s on my list), but have found that his smaller books like Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man (one of my all-time favorite novels- so funny), and That Old Cape Magic work best for Russo as he, unfettered by overly involved or sweeping plots, becomes free to explore his characters, really turning the microscope on them and delving into their psyches, often to great comic effect. Russo is one of the funniest writers of his generation, often eschewing the more solemn navel gazing of contemporaries like Richard Ford (another one of my favorites- no insult intended) in favor of pinpoint hilarity bordering on the slapstick (many scenes come to mind, but none so vividly as in Straight Man where the embattled English Department Chairperson Hank Devereaux Jr. hides in the drop ceiling above his office from his colleagues- most of whom are about to unseat him as chair-after he has awoken from a much needed nap and, because of the total relaxation that occurs, wets himself!).
But the small portraits were not what clobbered me. No, this book, like the other books mentioned above whose ambitions are perhaps more modest in scope, was so powerful to me because its protagonist, Jack Griffin, sounds a heck of a lot like me in many respects. Hank Devereaux did too, only his affliction was more academic- an English professor, a dysfunctional department, failed writing aspirations- interesting, eh? In this book, it’s Griffin’s descent into divorce, the malaise that strikes couples after they’ve been married for a while, the passive-aggressiveness displayed, that were all too hard at times to bear: I actually had to put the book down and move on at a few points.
I won’t give the ending away, but that struck me as the one point in the book that differed from my story significantly, and I wonder if Russo let his soft side win out. For a guy who writes so realistically about people who live and love together, this ending struck me as a bit contrived. Straight Man spared me this, and was a book that I felt was more realistic. But It was a good read, nonetheless, and one that I would recommend. Say what you will about Russo, but his books ring with some high level of verisimilitude, and that, combined with some pretty good laughs, makes this one solid.
And the Cape references didn’t hurt either. Only eleven months until next year’s vacation.