That Old Cape Magic

Middle-aged disappointment is a tough sell. It’s a subject that can easily fall into bitterness, dreariness, unattractive self-pity. And like everything else, it’s probably easier to deal with on summer vacation.

In his slim (for him) new novel, That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo takes on the novel of middle-aged reassessment, the marital breakup novel, the academic novel, and, what the hell, tosses in a bit of the Hollywood novel, as well. What’s remarkable is that the thing holds up as well as it does. There are places where it could be funnier, places where Russo fails in the novelist’s duty to go for the empathetic instead of the merely sharp surface observation. But he’s a smooth and, when he’s at his best, rueful writer. Reading That Old Cape Magic, you feel yourself sliding into the life changes Russo describes as easily as his protagonist, Jack Griffin.

Jack is a former Hollywood screenwriter who, when his career began to decline, made the switch to the less lucrative but steadier world of academia. He and his wife, Joy, have settled down into a house in Connecticut and yearly summer escapes to Cape Cod. That Old Cape Magic begins with Jack, solo, driving to the Cape for the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. The trip prompts memories of his own childhood summers at the Cape in the company of his parents, embittered academics never able to get over the resentment of spending their careers in midwestern schools instead of the prestigious ivy-laden institutions of the East.

As Russo lays it out, Jack’s childhood makes a pretty good case for the pleasures to be found in being an orphan. His parents’ contempt for each other is only exceeded by their contempt for everyone else. When one set of summer neighbors, a couple who teaches junior high school, introduces themselves, Jack’s parents react as you imagine Caruso might if told by Clay Aiken, “I’m a singer, too.”

In the novel’s present frame, Jack’s father is dead, but his mother, widowed again, still finds targets for her perpetual scorn in the series of nursing homes in which she lives — none, of course, worthy of being graced by her. Maybe the middling who fancy themselves elite are an easy target (anyone who’s ever spent time in a faculty meeting has probably, at one point, thought, There’s a novel in this). But it’s hard to resist barbs at characters as monstrous as these.

It’s also hard to allow them the space they take up in the novel. Russo is trying to get at how parents like this cast a shadow over their child’s life, even deep into the adult years. And Jack’s response — keeping Joy and their daughter, Laura, as far from these grandparents as they can, and ignoring their disparaging attitude towards his decision to make his living as a screenwriter — seems eminently sensible. Russo understands that what we grasp rationally does not necessarily translate into rational behavior. Still, it’s hard to care for Jack’s reluctance to let go, symbolized by his father’s ashes, still in his strangely dutiful son’s car trunk a year or so after the old man’s death. You wish that instead of worrying about the proper spot on the Cape to scatter the remains, he’d find a highway rest spot and leave what’s left of the old bastard in the dumpster.

Russo is much more successful at detailing the way in which Jack and Joy’s marriage veers imperceptibly, and perhaps irrevocably, off course. That Old Cape Magic takes place over two summer trips, each centered on a wedding. A year after Jack and Joy attend the wedding of Laura’s friend, they are back on the Cape attending her wedding. Only now, they’re separated and have — perhaps lastingly, perhaps not — found new partners.

It sounds like mingy praise to say of Russo that he has never been a chore to read. But just take a minute to consider the kind of subjects he’s tackled. His stories of working-class life in rusted-out small towns (in novels like Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls) escape the dank hopelessness that often pervades fiction in that setting. There’s none of the insistent, numbing dreariness that makes Raymond Carver’s fiction what we talk about when we talk about gloom. And in this novel and his collection of stories The Whore’s Child, Russo’s focus on the middle class manages to keep an air of lightness. Russo would likely feel at home with Thorne Smith’s Topper, the basis for the movie and television series, and which, beneath its whimsical premise, may be the most perfectly pitched novel about middle-class dissatisfaction in America.

That Old Cape Magic isn’t up to the standards of that terrific entertainer. But Russo understands the importance of the comic in this subject; there’s a willingness to amuse in his approach, which is no small thing, and that willingness is what glides over the grinding gears when the story switches among its various forms.

Ultimately, books about the middle-age blues either end on a note of bitterness or an acceptance of compromise. The latter is where Russo brings this novel down for a landing. And yet I’m not sure it’s the right compromise. Given the choice between the demonstrably unsatisfying but reassuringly familiar, and the unfamiliar but reasonably satisfying, Russo takes the first path. He ends on a note of hope but also, I think, a failure of nerve. It’s as if Russo is saying that, past a certain age, we’re foolish to embark on new adventures, even modest ones that offer the tempered pleasures that come later on in life. Maybe if Russo were the kind of writer it’s a chore to read, we’d believe Jack’s decision. It?s a compliment to say that Russo has too much life in him for it to ring true.