Friday, October 02, 2009

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Many of us are lucky to have a friend who shares our love of books and is a reliable source for authors, novels, biographies, and good reads in general. Some of us are most fortunate to have two. I have three – four if you count NPR. Richard Russo came to my attention through all of my sources in his 1998 novel, Straight Man. Straight Man recounts the hilarious story of William Devereaux, the reluctant chair of an English Department of a small college in rural Pennsylvania. With an English Department, Pennsylvania, and humor going for it, what could possibly go wrong? Absolutely nothing – I became thoroughly hooked on Russo.

On the other hand, several of his other novels describe the struggles of life in the small towns of rust-belt America among blue collar workers and small business owners. Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls were made into moderately successful films. This masterful writer always creates interesting, quirky, stubborn, and well-drawn characters. That Old Cape Magic has all of these traits, and it marks his return to academia as a back drop.

Jack and his wife, Joy, approach the final days of the semester so they can head out for an annual getaway to New England. Jack teaches English and Joy is a dean at the same college. Both try to untangle themselves – while protecting each other – from their respective families. Clearly this novel demonstrates that we are our parents’ children. Jack and Joy Griffin – yes, all the names do have a significance I will allow each reader to puzzle out alone – also have a daughter, Laura. Jack has to deal with his mother and deceased father, while Joy has a father, a deceased mother, and four siblings complicating their lives. All four parents have a secure and important place in the story.

One of the things I most enjoyed concerned Jack’s relationship with his students. Anyone who has ever taught English will understand and chuckle when Russo writes, Jack “offered his students far more comment and advice than they wanted, and the vast majority paid it exactly no attention whatsoever, given that their subsequent efforts were riddled with the same mistakes” (44). Jack also struggles with a career change he reluctantly accepted. This novel has images, ideas, words, and phrases that seem taken from my own academic life. Echoes and shadows of Straight Man.

The only problem with That Old Cape Magic stemmed from some imaginary conversations Jack has, and sometimes I had to stop and remind myself who was talking to whom. Nevertheless, a first-rate read, and this will send you scurrying for Straight Man and the other six novels he has written. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 9/28/09

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