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Russo's Old 'Magic' Shines In Wry New Novel

Richard Russo's glistening, new chambered nautilus of a novel is called That Old Cape Magic, but it might just as easily have been dubbed Two Weddings and a Funeral. That alternate title gives you an idea of its brazenly contrived plot structure. Part 1 opens on our middle-aged hero, a former screenwriter named Jack Griffin, who's driving to a wedding on Cape Cod. Nestled in the trunk of Griffin's car is an urn filled with his father's ashes. Griffin and his parents had always spent the summers of his childhood on the Cape, so Griffin has resolved that, as long as he's going back for this wedding, he might as well bring the urn along and find a time to wade out into the briny deep and give dad the old heave-ho.

In Part 2 of the novel, a year has passed, and Griffin's life has come unmoored. It's once again summer, and Griffin is driving alone northward (up to Maine this time) for another wedding — his only daughter's. Two urns are now wedged into opposite sides of his car trunk.

If, as a reader, you give yourself over to the delights of artifice — to Russo's tight variations on a few themes; to the cyclical returns to season and place; and to the revelations offered up by a slim cast of characters — you'll love, as I did, this pared-down Russo. That Old Cape Magic, after all, is a novel of late middle age when, instead of "lighting out for the territory," characters stumble along well-trod paths. Griffin, who's given to wry rumination, puts it better: He characterizes late middle age as "a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming."

One of the big things that Griffin fails to see coming is the shaking up of his marriage to Joy, his wife of some 30-odd years. Unlike Griffin who, as a typical Russo protagonist, is smart, wistful and depressed, Joy is that rarest of creatures: an intelligent person inclined toward contentment. She's happy with her family and her work. "[F]or Joy, [Griffin marvels in dismay] settled wasn't the same as settling."

Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel <em>Empire Falls. </em>
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Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Empire Falls.

The other big thing that neither Griffin, nor, I think, Russo, could anticipate is how Griffin's parents (who are residing in those separate urns by the second half of the novel) just arrogantly stroll into this story and run away with it. Like a lot of angry people, they're filled with lots of energy, and here they're like the ghosts in Topper, constantly yakking away in Griffin's head. The fact that they were both academics — English professors no less — means that irony is the default mode for all their pontifications.

Readers familiar with Russo's wonderful 1997 novel, Straight Man, will already know that he's a whiz at academic satire and, clearly, he has fun here returning to the inexhaustible topic of academics behaving badly. Griffin's parents were Ivy League grads who found jobs together at a large state university in the "Mid-[bleeping]-west," where they were trapped by what they (ironically) dubbed the process of "promotion and tether." To console themselves, they had numerous affairs and splurged on summer vacations at the Cape. And every summer, as they drove over the Sagamore Bridge onto the Cape with the young Griffin in the back seat, they would sing "That Old Black Magic," (of course, ironically) substituting "Cape" for "Black."

To lay his parents to rest, Griffin has to face how they've deeply and mostly destructively wormed their way into his adult life. That's the gist of the story here, but because this is Richard Russo writing and not some sentimental hack, the epiphanies are droll and muted. Here's one of my favorites: Griffin is in a cocktail lounge on the Cape, and he and a friendly middle-aged woman next to him are trying to decipher a sign above the bar that looks like it's written in Middle English. She insists it has to mean something, and Griffin thinks to himself:

"How ... did you get to be this woman's age and still believe ... that everything meant something? She was obviously one of those people who just soldiered on, determined to believe whatever gave them comfort in the face of all contrary evidence. And maybe that wasn't so dumb. The attraction of cynicism was that it so often put you in the right, as if being right led directly to happiness."

Whatever Griffin is drinking at that bar, it's working for him. I'll have a double.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.