Richard Russo’s latest isn’t one of his 500+ page wristbreakers. Russo also writes screenplays, both adaptations of his novels, and some original works, and this book shows some of the same dialogue-dependent style that drives a good screenplay. When asked how the two kinds of writing compare, he admits to enjoying the return to the novel form, since then he can use “all the tools in the toolbox,” not just dialogue and plot. That Old Cape Magic does have a structure made for a movie — it’s sandwiched between two weddings, a year apart — but some of the best things about it would be difficult to work into a movie.
One of the most vivid characters, for example, is rarely seen, except in flashbacks. But she’s heard from all too frequently, via Jack’s cell phone. Unless this mother from hell is given a voice-over, one of the book’s most memorable characters would be lost. His father has already been reduced to an urn of ashes riding around in Jack’s trunk, awaiting his scattering at some perfect place. His parents, both academic snobs who aspired unsuccessfully to professorships at any Ivy League school, spent their whole lives exiled to the “Mid-f***ing-West,” spending a month every summer on Cape Cod, looking for a house to buy for their retirement. They divided the available houses into two categories: Can’t Afford It, and Wouldn’t Have It as a Gift. So having Jack carry around his father’s ashes in the trunk, in search of the perfect resting place, is just a continuation of the family tradition.
Here, Jack has pulled over to the side of the road to take a call from Mom:
The circling gull cried out again, even louder this time, and Griffin briefly covered the phone with his hand. “Did you call for a reason, Mom?”
But she must’ve heard the idiot bird, because she said, her voice rich with resentment and accusation, “Are you on the Cape?”
“Yes, Mom,” he admitted. “We’re attending a wedding here tomorrow. Why, should I have alerted you? Asked permission?”
“Where?” she said. “What part?”
“Near Falmouth,” he was happy to report. The upper Cape, in her view, was strictly for people who didn’t know any better. You might as well live in Buzzards Bay, drive go-carts, play miniature golf, eat clam chowder thickened with flour, wear a Red Sox hat.
Jack spends a huge amount of energy trying NOT to have a marriage like his parents’. Probably wisely and definitely kindly, he shields his wife from contact with his parents. (His mother, on hearing that he was engaged, asked “Where did she do her graduate work?” The fact that Joy had stopped at a B.A. damned her as hopeless in his mother’s eyes.) But he isn’t able to overcome his upbringing entirely, and his very desire to be completely different than his parents gives them too much space in his life. The marriage falters for reasons that Jack doesn’t fully understand, and there’s some doubt as to whether it can be repaired. This is the story of his attempt to make piece with his childhood and his DNA.
Here’s a short video interview with Sam Tanenhaus of the NY Times:
author photo: Elena Seibert