There are some writers who are chameleons, who change voice when they change literary landscape, and produce a string of widely differing narratives on a range of topics. And then there are other writers, who essentially play variations on a theme in a world that is unmistakably their own. Richard Russo falls into the second category, which is something I’m glad about because his world is such a delightful one. It’s a crazy, mixed-up world, peopled with irritating work colleagues, exasperating families and more fraught emotions than any man is equipped to deal with. And so even if it is essentially a man’s world, it is one that certainly would be nothing without a woman in it, usually one particular, loving, good woman whose purpose in the narrative is to save the hero from himself, even if she’s rather at the end of her tether with that task. There’s always chaos and crisis in Russo’s narratives, but they are neutralised by humour and redeemed in the end by love, and that makes his world an ultimately reassuring place to be.
I’ve just finished his latest novel, That Old Cape Magic, in which Jack Griffin, middle aged teacher of screenwriting tries to come to terms with his past, hindered somewhat by his father, now in an urn in the boot of his car, and his mother, rather too vivaciously alive and constantly attacking him via his mobile. You might think that death and distance would minimalise the effects they can have on him, but Jack is constantly assailed by bittersweet memories of the past, growing up with his arrogant academic parents who never got over their exile in the universities of the Midwest, despite their Ivy League degrees. Their unhappy marriage dominated his childhood, although this being a Russo novel, the emphasis is not on the misery side of the memoir, but its highly comical dimension. I might as well get it over with and say right out that these dreadful parents steal the show in this novel, particularly Griffin’s mother, described by his father as ‘a bitch on wheels’. ‘Catch her in one unkindness,’ Jack reminisces, ‘and she’d quickly hopscotch to another. Attempting to corner her was like trying to put a cat in a bag; there was always an arm left over and, at the end of it, claws.’ He’s spent all his life trying to be happier than his parents, and better than them, too, but has it been enough? As his marriage teeters, Jack is forced to unpack his soul and reassess its contents.
Jack’s wife, Joy, comes from a very different family, a big, messy, happy-go-lucky one with no intellectual pretensions. Problematically for Jack, it’s a close one, too, and his whole aim in marrying was to put families of origin far behind him. Having escaped his own parents, why would he want to be subsumed by another lot? This is a brilliant study of the way that ghosts of families past haunt marriages, as well as a running commentary on the need to differentiate oneself forcibly from the old contours of childhood, whilst inadvertently dragging them behind all the time. Jack’s struggling to realise that closing doors inside his mind has only served to preserve the contents of those old chambers, and they’re ready to mug him whenever he isn’t looking. Which is about where the book begins, as he and Joy head over to Cape Cod for a wedding, the Cape being the place where his parents used to hold an uneasy truce every summer for the length of their holiday. With a short story that refuses to come out good about memories of a particular holiday he spent there as a child, and a troubling awareness of Joy’s growing discontent that he’s failed to address, and an urn of ashes he knows he has to scatter even though he can’t quite manage to do it, the stage is set for a classic comedy à la Russo, and a tender lesson in spiritual renewal.
I loved it, and I’d happily read it again.