Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). 261 pp. $25.95.
His seventh novel is Richard Russo’s first to come in at nowhere near four hundred pages. That Old Cape Magic is a departure in other respects too. It is not set in a “rust belt” town like Empire Falls or the North Bath of Nobody’s Fool where citizens no longer look forward to a secure future; it is set in the resort precincts of Cape Cod and coastal Maine. Although it contains Russo’s most stinging ridicule of professors since Straight Man, it is not an academic satire. For the first time Russo draws upon his experience as a screenwriter, but That Old Cape Magic is not a Hollywood novel either. Nor is it, as John Podhoretz described Russo’s earlier novels in the Weekly Standard, “packed with incident and plot,” and after finishing the novel, you don’t “feel as though you have gotten to know scores of people”—although perhaps you may have learned the secret that eludes Rafael Yglesias in A Happy Marriage.
That Old Cape Magic is a marriage drama. A better title might have been Two Weddings and Two Funerals, since these are the events that the narrative is built around. Jack Griffin, a 57-year-old film professor, leaves Connecticut ahead of his wife for the wedding of a family friend, hoping to pick an appropriate spot to scatter the ashes of his father’s remains. The wedding is on Cape Cod, where his parents—English professors at a state university in “the Mid-fucking-west”—summered for “one glorious month” every year while he was growing up. On the drive from Indiana they would sing Johnny Mercer’s 1942 hit with the word Cape substituting for black:
That old black magic has me in its spell
That old black magic that you weave so well
Icy fingers up
And down my spine
The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine
The same old tingle that I feel
When that elevator starts its ride
Down and down I go, round and round I go
Like a leaf thats
Caught in the tide
I should stay away but what can I do
I hear your name, and Im aflame
Such a burning desire
That only your kiss can put out the fire
You are the lover that Ive waited for
The mate that fate had me created for
And every time your lips meet mine
Baby down and down I go,
All around I go
In a spin, loving the spin that Im in
Under that old black magic called love
That old Cape magic, however, failed to keep Griffin’s parents together. Multiple joyless and vengeful infidelities impelled them to divorce. His drive to the Cape stirs Griffin’s memories of them, and filling in the background gives Russo the chance to indulge some of his funniest material since Straight Man. Griffin’s parents are academic snobs: “Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward?” On the Cape, hoping to find a summer house, they studied the real-estate guide even more intently than the Modern Language Association job list. But they could never find a house that satisfied them, because they sorted each into one of only two categories: Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.
After the divorce, Griffin’s mother reinvented herself as a gender-studies specialist, publishing well-placed articles on Patricia Highsmith and “two or three other gay/lesbian novelists” and dropping innuendos about her own sexuality. When the university hired a “transgendered scholar from, of all places, Utah,” she was furious at being passed over and withdrew from the life of the English department.
At her retirement dinner, after suffering through the droning remarks of other retirees, his mother rose and said: “Unlike my colleagues . . . I’ll be brief and honest. I wish I could think of something nice to say about you people and this university, I really do. But the truth we dare not utter is that ours is a distinctly second-rate institution, as are the vast majority of our students, as are we.” She is not in the same league as Audrey Litvinoff, but as Griffin admits, his mother is “divisive and quarrelsome. A bitch, really.”
Although Griffin is reluctant to acknowledge the truth, his parents are the biggest problem in his marriage. He has tried hard to distance himself from them, becoming a screenwriter and living in L.A. before returning East to teach screenwriting, but his parents’ attitudes have drained into his life, leaving him (as his wife accuses) congenitally unhappy. He too sorts experience into two categories: Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.
Perhaps the most revealing incident occured while he and his wife were visiting her family in Sacramento. A younger sister stumped them at Twenty Questions. When begged to divulge her fictional identity, she announced herself as Princess Grace of “Morocco.” Everyone else laughed, but Griffin “shook his head in disbelief, got up from the table and left the room, as if her mistake had been intentional or malicious and such bizarre mistakes could be assigned a moral value.” This is his parents’ attitude exactly: moralistic intolerance toward cultural second-raters.
Griffin’s half-conscious snobbery even begins to spread toward his wife Joy (her name is an unashamed allusion to C. S. Lewis’s autobiography). When they moved to Connecticut, they bought a large house, “rambling, inconvenient, full of character, on three acres and surrounded on three sides by woods.” It is the house that Joy has always wanted. “A professor’s house,” as she had described it on their honeymoon—another allusion. Griffin feels none of Joy’s pride or sense of accomplishment in improving the house:
Joy splits with him, because his condescension toward the circumstances of his own life has worn her down. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to mend [your heart],” she says tells Griffin, “because God knows I’ve tried. I’m exhausted from trying.” A lesser novelist—Richard Ford, for example—would use the separation as an occasion to explore the nuances of a sensitive man’s dissatisfactions at endless length. Russo is the better novelist, though. The comic travesty of his daughter’s wedding at a resort hotel in coastal Maine leads Griffin, like C. S. Lewis at the end of Surprised by Joy, to realize that “the old stab, the old bittersweet,” was never as important as he once thought it: “It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer,” as Lewis says.
Griffin’s mother has since died, and he carries an urn with her ashes in the trunk of his rental car alongside his father’s. After the wedding he finds a beach at last where he can scatter them, and the ocean water mingles their ashes—in death again as they were in life. Griffin climbs back into his car and abandons that old Cape magic, settling for that old black magic instead.
That Old Cape Magic may be second-rate Russo, but second-rate Russo is better than most fiction taken seriously by critics these days.