Saturday, May 1, 2010

Russo's Magic, and a book out of season

Richard Russo has been a favorite of mine since graduate school. Faced with the horrifying prospect of taking at trip without a book, I walked into the town's only, tiny bookstore and chose a Richard Russo book solely because his books seemed to be set in the same area I was living in at the time. Since then, I've read all of his books, but I've always found him to be hit and miss.

I would, sadly, put That Old Cape Magic in the "miss" category. I was rather surprised to see this one out so soon after his lengthy, ambitious Bridge of Sighs. That, right there, made me raise an eyebrow. But since it's Richard Russo, and since the library actually had this one, I read it.

The protagonist of the book, like many of Russo's protagonists, is a middle-aged man. Griffin grew up an only child of two academics who had a twisted and miserable outlook on life. His parents' lifelong goal and dream was to live and work in New England. Instead, they were stuck in "the fucking Midwest" (as they both consistently referred to it), unable to find a school that would take them as a package deal. They could only make their glorious escape to a rental every summer. Usually, that was virtually the only happy time of their year. Their marriage slowly became a prison and eventually broke up for good after mutliple infidelities on both sides.

Griffin strove to become their opposite. Happy in the present, committed to his wife and daughter. He comes to the Cape again in the first half of the novel to scatter his father's ashes and attend the wedding of his daughter's friend. As the book jacket promises, he is back in the second half, with more ashes to scatter, and has brought a date to his own daughter's Cape wedding. So has his wife.

I don't know what it is lately with books that take place in the past, but this is another one. The real story is not what became of Griffin's ostensibly happy marriage (though even in the first part, there are major cracks). The real story is how Griffin will resolve his relationship with his complicated parents, and cope with their deaths.

But it all fell a bit flat to me. Even though most of Russo's characters are in the throes of a personal crisis, he keeps them from being too angsty by a strong cast of supporting characters. Lucky Hal and Sully didn't just sit around and whine. They went out drinking, they played raquetball, they threatened ducks, stole snowblowers, went to work. They had LIVES. They had friends, too, and antagonists. Griffin's angst exists in a virtual vaccuum. Russo gave him a best friend, who stays mostly in the background. His daughter is made of cardboard. Griffin isn't working, since he too has become an academic and this is a summer story. His main activity is sitting around and whining.

It gets old. Fortunately, this is a short one. And Russo at his worst is better than a lot of people at their best.

The next book I tried was another David Guterson. I've been meaning to since Snow Falling on Cedars. East of the Mountain was just as beautifully written. But I couldn't do it. The book is about the last journey of an old man with terminal cancer. He is going to shoot himself and make it look like a hunting accident. It's gorgeous, sad...and all wrong. Around here, it's been warm and sunny, the flowering trees are in bloom, my folks are coming home soon, everything is going well. I tried. I will remember this one and come back to it, but for now it's definitely out of sync with my mood. I'm going to try that Sherman Alexie one instead.

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