Thursday, August 27, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

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
Aflame with
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:

It wasn’t like he’d grown weary of their good life, their good marriage. That would be serious. Though he had to admit it, despite Joy’s best efforts, he sometimes thought of the house as hers, not theirs, almost as if they’d divorced and she’d gotten it in the settlement. It was hers for the simple reason that it made her happy. She had what she wanted. Was it possible that her contentment was the true cause of his funk? Her ability to still want what she wanted so long ago? This was a failing?Yes, it is. The inability to be content with his lot, to accept the abundance of what life has brought him without the burning desire for something more or something else, is the cause of his comfortable and well-appointed unhappiness. And not only his. The popular term for this self-involved hankering is midlife crisis, a subject I have discussed before. Griffin calls it his “middle-age meltdown.”

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.


Jerry said...

Second rate Russo is better than most other fiction? Are you kidding? I've read half of That Old Cape Magic and I think I'll hate myself if I bother to finish it because life is too short. Russo's style is expository and wordy. He explains everything and nothing. His characters are two-dimensional at best. His attempts at wit are tiresome. His books make much better movies. He should stick to screenwriting. Why he is such a revered writer eludes me -- am I missing something? Russo is an overparaised hack.

jossy said...

Overpraised hack ? That's funny. Honestly, I love this guy. Try Mohawk and Nobody's Fool. He's beautiful.