by Richard Russo
Random House, NY 2009
Review by Anthony Barker
Richard Russo writes of ordinary life with consummate skill.
Ordinary life is mostly about marriage and work—the vehicles in which we invest most of our psychic capital, and from which we expect to draw bonuses of ‘meaning’ and ‘satisfaction’ that would stagger a Goldman Sachs director. Well… good luck.
Russo plays with us a bit. A screenwriter and writing professor writing a novel about a professor of screenwriting who wants to write novels, he blithely violates various sacred rules (e.g., beginning the story with main character waking up in the morning.) He changes points of view at his convenience (‘head-hopping’) and thumbs his nose at other ‘no-no’s’ he may actually have preached as a professor. More subtly—the story of screenwriter Jack’s life follows the conventions of movie scripting—the Accord is the ‘treatment’ or ‘concept’—the rest of it, the creation of characters, the continuity, the careful placement of conflicts, the jokes (his mother’s annoying phone calls that pursue him even after her death) and above all, ‘the revelation’ are all part of the ‘working out.’
In work, as in marriage, people bring different gifts. His script-writing partner, Tommy, is better at the ‘the big picture’—but can’t make it happen without Jack, who excels at the ‘working out’. Together they’re good at it, and paid well, but Jack, infected by his mother’s snobbery, can’t help thinking he ought to be writing books.
Jack’s parents were disappointed in life. They thought their Yale PhD’s entitled them to brilliant careers in the Ivy League—or failing that, at some sanctuary of privilege (Northampton? Haverford?) on the East Coast. Instead, they have jobs at a state university in Indiana. What could be more awful, they repeatedly ask, than to live eleven months of the year in ‘the mid-fucking-west’?
It is a question that might evoke some sympathy if they weren’t equally bitter about the rest of their lives. Their colleagues are inferior, their students inadequate, and their marriage (even aside from its competitive infidelities) frightful. Their son is a ‘pill’, boring and irrelevant. The sole redeeming feature of their lives is their annual vacation on Cape Cod. Each year, as they cross the Sagamore Bridge, it seems possible that things might work out—until they must re-cross it in the direction of reality.
Jack can’t stand them, and takes their phone calls in another room to protect his own marriage from their interference.
When they married, his wife bought into his vision. He persuaded her to honeymoon on the Cape, where they crafted The Great Truro Accord, a plan for the lives they thought they wanted, including the writing of books, and a nice home somewhere in New England. Meanwhile they’d work in the film industry and enjoy life in California (far from their families.)
All goes well, but as we should have expected (but didn’t) beneath their happiness, they are unhappy. Jack (who can’t imagine loving one’s parents) cannot understand that Joy misses her family, that she wants to visit them on holidays, that she doesn’t view her father’s offer to ‘help-out’ as interference.
Fast forward to the ‘now’ of the story. No longer a young screenwriter, but a writing professor, Jack has driven from their rural Connecticut home to the Cape, to attend a wedding. He and Joy have had an argument, but she’ll be along later. Afterwards they’ll scatter his father’s ashes.
He’s been schlepping those ashes around for months, unable to decide what to do, or how to do it. They are a reproach to him, stirring reflections on how he and his parents have lived their respective lives. Astonishingly, he has recently seen his wife weeping. She meant to conceal her unhappiness (and he respected her intention by sneaking away unobserved.) But how could she be unhappy? She has created exactly the home and the life they agreed to thirty years before.
Women always have better reasons than men for doing what they do (or at least, reasons which are more persuasive to them.) No matter that a wife may accede to her husband’s wishes, these reasons remain valid, like coals under the ashes, so that all he can gain by reopening a discussion is to risk being burned. True of Jack’s father, it is as true of Jack, although he is too self-centered to notice.
In yet another argument, Joy accuses Jack of being ‘congenitally unhappy’. From this choice of words he guesses that she has recently spoken to his old partner, and suddenly understands that Joy’s ‘meaningless’ flirtation with Tommy, decades before, has had a lifetime of consequences. Griffin never noticed when the game got serious, and as Joy has remained faithful to their marriage and their life plan, he never understood that leaving California, and starting their ‘real’ life was not so much the fulfillment of their dream, but a means of distancing herself from her desire—a choice she might still regret.
She confesses to it, and they separate. The downward spiral that followed his parent’s divorce seems about to be duplicated in Griffin’s life. It is conceivable that by stopping here, and perhaps cutting back on his mother’s phone calls, Russo could have written a French movie—a sort of marital 400 Blows, rueful, ironic, symbolic, the great ‘revelation’ even more agonizing (and no doubt post-mortem.)
Happily, Russo is an American writer. American lives, however ordinary, are in technicolor, and among us, marriage is always followed by ‘happily ever after’. In a spectacular display of comic writing, Russo rescues his characters from their ‘second act complications’, disposes of those pesky ashes, gets their daughter safely married (for now) and brings the old lovers (nursing wounds incurred at a Marx Brother’s wedding rehearsal) back across the Sagamore Bridge to Reality (and the sunset) reconciled to the past, and to each other (more or less.)
It takes a special writer to write ordinary lives.
That Old Cape Magic
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