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Thursday, February 3, 2011

That Old Cape Magic

That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo
(4/5 stars)

There's a bit of jealousy involved when I read something like this.  If I queried an agent with a story about a neurotic middle-aged man who's unremarkable in any significant way who has a low-tempered midlife crisis, there's no way I'd ever get it published.  But when you've won a Pulitzer Prize you get carte blanche to write books that many others (including yourself) have already done before.

The neurotic man in question is Jack Griffin.  Long ago he wrote movies, that was until he married Joy, who gave birth to their daughter Laura.  After that Jack moved to Connecticut, where he teaches film classes while Joy works in the admissions office.

The only real problem in Jack's world is his troubled relationship with his parents.  His parents were both English professors who had a love of Cape Cod--the Cape referred to in the title.  Jack sees his parents, probably rightfully so, as snobs who looked down on everyone including Joy and her family, despite that they never so much as owned a house, preferring to ruin those of their colleagues.  Jack has spent a good portion of life trying not to be them, something that weighs heavier on him after his father dies.

During a wedding on the Cape for Laura's best friend, secrets are revealed and Jack and Joy's relationship begins to unravel.  His life goes south, his mother dying and her ghost haunting him--usually taunting him while he moves back to LA to try and write movies again.  Meanwhile Joy seems to be doing pretty well with a new man in her life.

I didn't hate this book, but I don't think Russo was really saying anything he hadn't said in all of his previous novels.  All of his protagonists are haunted by their parents, like all of us to some extent struggle to reconcile that our parents aren't perfect.  It was really hard for me to "root for" a guy who has such an obsessive fixation on his parents that he nearly lets it destroy an otherwise happy marriage.  Especially because while his parents were jerks they didn't beat him or molest him or anything like that.  You can look in the newspaper (or on the Internet) and see parents who are much worthier of obsessing about.  It's really amazing Jack hadn't gone into some form of therapy long before this.

Another thing that bugs me is Jack's story "The Summer of the Brownings."  He takes the unfinished story out of a drawer and finds some holes not only in the story but possibly his memory and then later finishes the story.  But we never really know exactly how he changed it and the story itself never seemed to have much significance.  I thought Jack's possibly faulty memory--brought up again when his mother is dying--would have some kind of an impact like in John Irving's "Until I Find You" but it didn't really seem to do anything.  It was more of a red herring than anything.

Another minor point is that although Jack is a screenwriter and a teacher of film, he doesn't seem to have much love for movies.  We never learn what Jack's favorite movie is or about any scenes or actors who meant anything to him.  We get vague details about some projects he worked on, and even those are treated with apathy.  Really I don't think the author thought any of that important, that Jack's career was just means to an end.  Interestingly Russo has worked on movies like "The Ice Harvest" and he's taught at universities, so it probably seemed easy enough to combine those two into Jack's career.  The way it's presented, though, Jack might as well have been a garbage man--not that there's anything wrong with that--because neither movies nor teaching seemed very important to him.

The good thing, though, is that a skilled novelist can manage to beat a dead horse and still make it interesting for the reader.  Despite that I've read numerous books and seen numerous films about a guy having a midlife crisis and parental issues, I was never bored with the book.  The narrative and dialog are quick and sharp, keeping the story from becoming a limp, inert mess as could have easily happened (and often enough has happened) in the wrong hands.

So even though Jack's story is probably familiar, especially to fans of Russo's other novels, it's still a lot better than a lot of junk put out there.

That is all.

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