That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

“…there’s fucking truth in here.”

Though the above emphatic compliment appears in, and not about, Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, it is applicable. Beneath the rolling surface of Russo’s seventh novel, truths push and pull and threaten to drag one under. Like sea glass they wait for discovery. Some truths are hard, some are a bit worn to the point of cliché (though still pleasing to look at), and some are funny despite sharp edges. That they are lovely and polished and glimmer just beneath the surface is a testament to Russo’s gifts as a storyteller.

That Old Cape Magic follows the stumbling at mid-life-crisis of Jack Griffin, a one-time screenwriter, possibly fiction writer, presently college professor. He loves his wife, Joy, and his daughter, Laura. For his mother he suffers both incredible resentment and excruciating phone calls. His father he carries, as ashes, in the trunk of his car. The story, broken into two parts, focuses on two weddings. First comes that of a family friend, followed a year later by his daughter’s. The attempt to attend the first, and then appear in the second, both dredge up Griffin’s painful childhood memories and force a re-evaluation of not only his marriage but his connection to the world at large.

Awash with memory and resentment to sacrifices made, though at whose request he can’t recall, Griffin finds himself traveling familiar roads alone. He carries his father’s ashes with him in the belief that he can attend the wedding, held out on the Cape, and then on his way home to Connecticut dispose (read “dump”) his father in some waterway. His parents were in love with the Cape, making poorly planned trips there every summer through his childhood to ignore each other’s affairs and hurl criticism at the locals. The truths and lies they tossed behind them over those years are now rising up, bloated and bursting and causing Griffin to question his life, to lay blame for his errors on others (his parents, his wife).

It is one of Russo’s strengths that Griffin’s logic, and the holes in it, are apparent to both him and us, that we see him fail to convince even himself that others have made his choices for him. He is, as his old friend Tommy (he of the uncensored compliment quoted above) says, “A congenitally unhappy man.”

Griffin is a man weighed down with details. He sinks beneath his memories as if tied in a chain he can’t untangle because he’s too distracted by each individual link. Tommy, his closest friend (there aren’t many) and former screenwriting partner, balances Griffin by seeing the big picture. Unfortunately for Griffin, he has taken the same detail distracted approach to his life. He has taken a path not of his nor anyone else’s choosing. When he stops to look back and figure out how he got where he is, faced with a breaking marriage, a fearful relationship with his daughter, angry distance with his mother and toting his father’s ashes in his trunk, he can’t see how he arrived. All he has is a tide, rolling in and out, of memories.

Russo illustrates this missing path by telling the story through flashbacks in time. It loops and curls back on itself. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. In other words, it takes on the form of memory itself. We are caught in Griffin’s ruminations no less than he. Arguments with his mother, assumptions about Joy, and the creation of a short story based on his own childhood memories lead Griffin to acknowledge, after much hand wringing and head-against-the-wall impacts (one even literally appearing), his responsibility and culpability for his own happiness.

He feels haunted by his parents, even thinking in their voices, convinced the hyper-critical comments he hears can’t be his own. He remembers, or allows himself to realize, for the first time, the secrets that he couldn’t bear to let himself reveal. When his attempt to write a story about his childhood turns into an examination of his parents he feels cheated, as if somehow they ought not be there at all, ever. It’s this retreat from them that forces them that much more into his life, injects them between him and Joy, and he closes down further and further, dragging Joy down with him.

Russo tells the story as a constant washing in and out of the past and present. The present, the rising and falling surface of the waves, keeps Griffin bobbing from one moment to the next. Professional confusion (is he a writer, screenwriter, professor?) and ambiguity (leaving employers in the lurch, guessing at his plans, lacking a connection to students or their assignments but forcing himself to over-analyze their efforts) are symptoms. So too is his inability to find a suitable place for his father’s ashes. Beneath this rolling surface is the undertow of recriminations, resentment, the undertow we all carry. His history is a weight. He never forgets, even if he’s wrong about the details. He is waterlogged with himself.

Pulling him under are his parents’ disinterest in him — or anyone — not seeking a PhD, and misguided assumptions about his wife’s inner life. Griffin has created a protective barrier. He holds in and “protects” his wife and child from the harm of his parents by keeping them separate. He thinks that his writing is a safe place for the old hurts to leak out. But they don’t leak fast enough, do they? They never do. And so he’s sinking. He grabs hold of memories to keep himself afloat but finds they can’t be trusted. He battles with differing versions of the same events. Details of Joy’s unhappiness that he ignored. His mother’s version of the end of his father’s life, her version of Griffin’s childhood friend that is the subject of his short story. He’s further trapped by a habit of pushing himself out of a painful moments, seeing them written, in screenplay format, as a scene.

Russo’s back and forth in time is as seamless as the tide. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Repeat. Which came first? For Griffin too there is no starting, no stopping. Is he unhappy because his wife reminds him of childhood pains or do the childhood pains drive him to bad decisions? Is he an ineffective writer because his material is too steeped in hurt, or does he choose to wallow? Was he made by his parent’s attitudes, prejudices, habits, or was he born this way, a genetic copy of their worst traits?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. His choices and perceptions are his own. He chooses to see connections, or to not act when he could. He watches the collapse of his mother, his father, his in-laws, his own marriage as if on the outside. Griffin’s attempt to surface from the depths of his depression and inability to function means not asking why the water is so deep, it means working to reach the surface.

Like all great works, there is a moment where we must ask how true something is. Does it, in the end, capture what it claims? Does it give an accurate picture of the world from which it came or does it only float like a ship in a bottle, perfect in detail but ultimately only interesting as a spectacle?

At the beginning of the book a seagull shits on Griffin when he stops to take a call from his mother. Blaming her for the act, connecting the gull’s excrement with his mother’s vile emotional abuse, he carries that moment with him through the book. People are in control of the uncontrollable, he thinks. He has been taught errors are moral failings. It is with great effort that he tries to unlearn and unthink this emotional scar imitating philosophy. The book is an illustration of a person’s claiming responsibility for their own happiness, of being not only aware of themselves but of accepting themselves. When he can get to this point he can accept his mother and seagull were not in cahoots.

While wading through my thoughts on Russo’s book, while considering the best way to discuss That Old Cape Magic and its remarkable achievements, I found myself adrift in thought on a busy New York City street. What would be the best way to summarize such a effortlessly emotional book, so awash in seriously comic and tragic, but always brutally honest moments? As I wondered at this a pigeon shat on me.

Not to make too much of it as a connection, after all it was a pigeon, not a seagull, and there was no phone call with a bitter mother involved. However, I couldn’t help but think that it was some sign of Russo’s success. He was not responsible for the pigeon, of course, but he was responsible for a beautiful depiction of how people think, how we convince ourselves that we are the center of our universe, and that things don’t just happen but are “done”, often to or for us. Russo provides with stunning clarity how much work must go into bursting out of that bubble.

So in the end, looking at the bird shit on my pants I’m left with one echoed realization about Russo’s book: “there’s fucking truth in here.”

RATING 8 / 10