Encountering Richard Russo at the beach is like finding a moose sunning himself in the tropics. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“Bridge of Sighs”) has become synonymous with dying Northeastern towns, such as those chronicled in his novels “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls.”
And yet, as That Old Cape Magic opens, hack-screenwriter-turned-college-professor Jack Griffin is heading across the Sagamore Bridge. As he journeys to a wedding, Griffin remembers other summers as the only child of warring English professors, for whom their vacations symbolized the life they were supposed to be leading.
Instead of fighting over Jack, his parents – who were candid about their dislike of kids – fought for sole possession of Cape Cod. Griffin tried to fashion a life as far from their ideal as possible (hence the Hollywood screen gig), but his wife, Joy, points out that he’s nonetheless managed to pick up the worst traits of each of his parents – both of whom remain close at hand.
His mother, a virago seething with enough vitality to take over the novel, calls him constantly. “Attempting to corner her was like trying to put a cat in a bag; there was lways an arm left over and, at the end of it, claws.” And his dad is a passenger in his car. At least his remains are: Jack’s had his urn rattling around in his trunk for almost a year. (Apparently, metaphorical baggage is no longer enough.)
The plot unfolds at two weddings: one on the Cape; the other at a seaside town in Maine. But most of the novel takes place inside Griffin’s head, and the tone is caught somewhere between comedy and tragedy – rather like middle age itself.
Griffin is like a less- accident-prone version of Hank Deveraux Jr., the English professor in Russo’s academic comedy, “Straight Man.” (I’ve always had a soft spot for the novel, in which, while in pursuit of anarchy, Hank manages to embroil himself in disasters involving ceilings, spiral-bound notebooks, and a duck.) Both men are completely blind to their own motivations, and neither functions very well without his wife. While “That Old Cape Magic” lacks the farcical energy of “Straight Man,” Russo still manages to get in a few set pieces, such as Griffin’s aborted attempt to scatter his dad’s ashes at sea and a wedding fiasco involving a wheelchair-bound guest and a yew hedge.
Few novelists exude as much wry compassion as Russo. That – as well as his dependably elegant writing – should carry fans past some of Griffin’s navel-gazing. “Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.