That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
You could dismiss Newsweek’s recent screed on this novelist—Jennie
Yabroff’s "Is Author Richard Russo a Misogynist?”—as just another
unintentionally funny example of the reduction of all journalistic
accounts to edgy sound bites. That is, if it wasn't so wrong-headed. Of
course, Newsweek has never had the literary
luster of its rival Time (whose roster, over the
years, has included James Agee, Stephen
Vincent Benet, Archibald MacLeish, John Hersey,
John O'Hara, Weldon Kees and Frank Norris),
but even Newsweek's solidly middlebrow
tradition is tarnished by this sad example
of how print media is “reinventing itself” in
a web-driven world.
Only a monomaniacal misandrist could identify
misogyny as a key thrust of Russo’s new novel
That Old Cape Magic. The protagonist Jack
Griffin is beset by self-loathing, accentuated
by his tendency to let down the decent, kind-hearted women in his life.
His friend Tommy pointedly asks where he finds these fine ladies, and
reminds him of how unworthy he is of them. The men are the real
troublemakers here—even Tommy, who is perhaps a little too
interested in the women in his buddy’s life.
Griffin is caught up in a mid-life crisis. He wants to abandon his secure
job as a college professor and write screenplays on the West Coast. He
wants his marriage to succeed, but also wants out of it. His parents
are dead, but he agonizes over their ashes, sitting in the trunk of his
car destined for some final resting spot that he can’t find the gumption
to choose. He has additional baggage from childhood that is much
heavier than these urns of ash, and it weighs him down even further.
But a woman-hater he is not.
Ah, but parents . . . that’s another story entirely.
If I had to pick the single most prevalent theme in fiction today it would
probably be bad parenting. Check out (to cite just a few examples of
an almost universal focal point of literary obsession) Jonathan Lethem’s
Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Marisha
Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marilynne Robinson's
Housekeeping, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Jhumpa
Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, Zadie Smith's White Teeth—or, honestly,
just pick a novel at random from the “new fiction” shelf at your local
bookstore . . . and you will find example after example of just how bad
mom and dad can be. There is a lesson here, surely, but not one that
they teach in creative writing classes.
Russo is a master of this anti-Doctor-Spock tone, and it may be this
aspect of his writing that Yabroff mistakes for misogony. In the
author's Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls the destructive parent was
the protagonist’s father, who would steal from his son, con anyone
who came his way, and hardly put four words together that didn’t
contain a lie. In That Old Cape Magic, the mother is the mischief-
maker, a career academic who is narcissistic and elitist, sarcastic and
manipulative. The scars she leaves behind run so deep, that even after
she is dead, Griffin hears her voice offering a pointed commentary to
his day-to-day life.
The challenge for Griffin, as for so many other Russo characters, is to
prevent the ugliness from passing on to the next generation. His
daughter’s nuptials serve as the centerpiece That Old Cape Magic, and
Russo is as prepared as a professional wedding planner for making the
most this interlude. He brings out the psychological angles and hidden
agendas with almost uncanny skill, but on top of this he overlays a
slapstick comedy element that is as enjoyable as it is unexpected.
I especially admire Russo’s mastery of the nuts-and-bolts of
storytelling. In my opinion, no living author is better at integrating
flashbacks of past events and anticipations of future ones into a
narrative, while still keeping the main tale and subplots all moving
forward. It is easy to take this for granted if only because of the casual
ease with which Russo handles the transitions and interpolations. Open
to any given page in this novel, and you are likely to see events from
the East Coast and West Coast, or childhood and adulthood,
juxtaposed in strange and wonderful ways. This may be craftsmanship
rather than artistry, but should not be dismissed on that basis alone.
Craftsmanship built some cathedrals that are still standing after five
hundred years, while artistry’s half-life is often measured in weeks.
I am not always thrilled with Russo’s choices. The brilliance of the
opening section here is marred by his decision to “heighten” its climax
by having a seagull poop on the main character. And he finds periodic
excuses to return to this incident at several later points in the book. I
attribute these elements of low humor—and the slapstick moments
referred to above—to the author’s experiences writing screenplays
(much like his main character here). Perhaps when Russo was working
with Rowan Atkinson, guano could make a good story better, but it
merely leaves a nasty stain in a novel that is otherwise smartly
conceived and artfully executed.
It wouldn’t be a Russo novel if the plot didn't come together in fitting
synchronicity at the end. And here our author has three different
generations to direct, each with its own complications and
eccentricities. But Russo is as skilled at handling large casts of
characters as he in the other fundamentals of fiction. In the final
pages, the action feels a bit rushed—an extra five thousand words
toward the close might have enhanced this novel. Yet it is hard to carp
when so many pieces snap neatly into place—and even the gull makes a
return appearance on the final page. Thank heavens it shows a bit
more respect this time around.
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