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By (October 1, 2009) No Comment

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo
Knopf, 2009

When I first read Richard Russo’s 1997 novel, Straight Man—a hilarious look at a professor’s life in a small college town–I had that great and all too infrequent experience of discovering a new favorite writer. I can’t remember the last time I read a well-written novel with such comedic timing. I’ve since read other Russo novels, Nobody’s Fool, Mowhawk, Risk Pool, and the Pulitzer prize-winning Empire Falls (and his excellent short story collection, Whore’s Child) and, while perhaps not as wowed as I was by that first discovery, I was not disappointed. Russo writes solid, well-developed main characters who generally fit a specific mold: middle-aged white guys enduring mid-life crises in small towns. They’re regulars at the local bar and they’re quick wits: the quintessential Russo character uses humor to charm his way out of awkward or untenable situations, deflect intimacy, sabotage his professional and personal relationships, deal with family strife, and even entertain himself at the expense of others.

The one fault I find with Russo’s novels is that the characters who share these traits tend to blur together throughout his work. But this doesn’t keep Russo from what has become a regular spot on the bestseller list—his books are satisfyingly well plotted and the humor his characters use to disarm family and friends has a similar effect on the reader, easing us into Russo’s engaging, credible worlds.

In his latest book, That Old Cape Magic (so named in honor of this particular main character’s annual summer family trips to Cape Cod), we meet in Jack Griffin, the classic Russo protagonist. Griffin is a middle-aged screenwriting professor in the grip of intense self-reflection brought on by his father’s death. He’s dissatisfied with his cushy professorship at a small liberal arts college, has a large family comprised of a cast of entertaining characters, and feels distant from his wife and grown daughter but loves them dearly, if ineptly. But what’s different about That Old Cape Magic is that this Russo character is not a funny guy. Nope, Griffin is sad. And with good reason: raised by emotionally unavailable parents—also disgruntled academics—whose only joy in life comes from their family summers on Cape Cod, Griffin is saddled with a dead father whose ashes he’s carrying around in the trunk of his car a year after his demise, plus a wife of thirty years who has been increasingly distant of late, plus insufferable boobs for in-laws. And now he’s en route, alone, to the Cape Cod of his childhood for the wedding of his daughter’s best friend.

Played out over the course of a year and book-ended by two weddings (the second is that of Griffin’s own daughter), That Old Cape Magic is, deep down, an adeptly written examination of a thirty-year marriage and all the painful realities such relationships face. It’s a serious book. And Russo pulls it off—Griffin’s physical and emotional landscape ring true, from his introspective scenic drives around the Cape, to his childhood in the “mid-fucking-west” (as his parents deem it), to his conflicted work as a screenwriter in LA. The same narrative adroitness that in other books give Russo’s interior monologues such humor does similar work here by drawing the reader into Griffin’s wounded psyche. But coming from a famously funny writer, you feel that Russo is holding himself back, humor-wise, and that makes the story feel a little off, like there’s something we’re missing about Griffin. Clearly Russo is intentionally not writing a funny book here. In fact, Griffin is so down that his wife calls him a “congenitally unhappy man.” Griffin, without doubt, comes across as melancholy, but a statement like that implies full on depression, which is never quite realized in the character. In fact, the climactic minor tragedy at the end of the novel is almost slapstick. After said accident, on the night of his daughter’s rehearsal dinner, Griffin has this conversation with his daughter, who has been in an altercation with a bush:

“I must be allergic to yew,” Laura said, scratching at her forearms.

“To me?”

She stopped scratching and looked at him.

“Oh. Yew. Gotcha.” Now that he looked at them, her arms were grotesquely swollen.

There are other lines that smack of Russo’s trademark humor. For example:

His father, after writing his second wife’s doctoral thesis for her, thinks that “she’d be so grateful her frozen pussy would thaw.”


One Thanksgiving at Harve and Jill’s, not long after they were married, having exhausted all the board games, they’d played Twenty Questions, and Joy’s sister Jane had stumped everyone at the table for the better part of an hour, Harve stubbornly refusing to give up. Finally, though, everyone else pleaded with her to surrender her fictional identity, which turned out to be Princess Grace of “Morocco.”

But these feel thrown in, almost like Russo couldn’t help himself—he seems compelled to lessen the tension of the really sad moments in That Old Cape Magic with smaller blips of humor, even if he stops himself from letting Jack Griffin have that particular defense mechanism. While, excepting these few funny instances, I missed Russo’s trademark literary humor, all in all, That Old Cape Magic is an engaging, at times poignant read—and provides another great Russo protagonist. Even if this one really is a straight man.

Originally from Austin, Texas, Jennifer Olsen earned her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in 2005. She previously served as fiction editor for Redivider literary journal, and currently works as an editor for Nicholas Brealey Publishing in Boston.

On to #6, The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

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