Professor Jack Griffin is having a midlife crisis and he doesn’t want to admit it. By the time he realizes “his dead parent, his living one, his old profession, and his boy-hood self [are] all clamoring for attention,” he’s knee deep in dissatisfaction. In That Old Cape Magic, author Richard Russo uses Griffin’s reflections to embed a clever chain of stories within stories for a fast-paced and funny personal history of domestic conflict and familial strife.
Griffin was born to a pair of perpetually dissatisfied academics, parents who fought with and cheated on each other every school year. Their cycle was only broken by summer break, when they'd drive to a rented house on Cape Cod and make amends: “As if happiness were a place.” Griffin and his wife Joy made a honeymoon pact three decades ago — an agreement meant to avoid their parents' mistakes — but their lives (and vacations) have taken a familiar turn.
The novel opens as things begin to fall apart. Griffin, who left his first career as a screenwriter to become a professor, doesn’t want to admit that he and Joy are having problems. When their typical end of the semester vacation planning goes awry, Griffin pitches a fit and leaves Joy behind. That night, while watching bad TV alone in a hotel room, he begins a series of interconnected recollections.
Griffin examines his life the same way he grades his students' rough drafts, constantly looking for inconsistencies or connections. He compares writing to building a house: If the foundation is a bit uneven, it can be hard to tell on the first floor but is all too obvious by the 30th. Without fully admitting it, Griffin is assessing his life's foundation, searching for the kinks causing things to go askew in his marriage 30 years later.
All of Griffin’s friends and relatives expose their worst qualities through his memories — no one is spared in these cynical set pieces. He quotes his mother with enough mean-spirited words to justify what her academic file suggests, “divisive and quarrelsome. A bitch, really.” His dead father comes across even worse: a weak-spirited man who writes his student/lover’s dissertation and works himself to death in the process. When Joy admits to being in love with Griffin’s former best friend Tommy, Griffin reimagines their talk as a scene from a script, her words sharp with the intonations of an ice queen. When Griffin asks Tommy whether he's still in love with Joy, he says, “Sure, aren’t you?”
Most of the impending crises come to a head at the novel's midpoint: Griffin and Joy separate; his mother dies; he publishes a short story about his childhood; and his daughter Laura gets married. Griffin’s recollections, now mostly combing through the past year, are still the most successful passages, but the story starts shifting toward the present day before coming to an easy, lightweight conclusion.
That Old Cape Magic isn't the sort of heavyweight novel one expects from a Pulitzer winner, but that hardly matters if you set aside the comparison. Russo has an enviable knack for seamlessly weaving back story through the present day and finding unexpected comedy in darker moments. It's by no means his best book, but That Old Cape Magic still casts a memorable spell.
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. Knopf. $25.95. 272 pp.