Jack Griffin, a frustrated screenwriter turned slightly less frustrated college professor, has a father he can’t lay to rest and a mother intent on never leaving him alone. As the latest novel from the author of Straight Man and Empire Falls opens, the former parent’s ashes have taken up semi-permanent residence in the trunk of Griffin’s car; the latter haunts his cell phone, calling from an Indiana nursing home to make demands he can do little to satisfy from the East Coast. His marriage has seen better days, too. Its once-solid bond is fraying in advance of his daughter’s wedding on Cape Cod, the site of his childhood vacations and a place of yearning for his academic parents who summered there to get away from the “mid fucking west,” where their sub-superstar academic careers stuck them. (Griffin’s unyieldingly demanding mother, who coins that colorful term, belongs in the front ranks of memorable Russo parents next to Empire Falls’ Max Roby.) For Griffin, Cape Cod crawls with memories and the fear of repeated history.
A warm novel whose comic bits blend seamlessly with weightier themes, That Old Cape Magic finds Russo on familiar turf as well. At heart a story of a midlife crisis, it quietly wages war against clichés, introducing characters who seem destined to serve functions they’re never actually called upon to perform, and relying more on sharply drawn pieces of everyday life than the sort of story formulas that helped lead its protagonist to flee Hollywood. There’s no distinct crisis causing Griffin trouble. The passing of time has left him adrift, calling on his own past and plunging into the mysteries of his parents’ marriage to better understand the malaise of the present.
The answers don’t come easily. Russo draws some supporting characters too broadly, but he never creates simple worlds. Though slimmer in ambition than Bridge Of Sighs—Russo’s last novel, which imagined a working-class New England town practically down to the last patch of rust—Magic captures the complexity of lived-in relationships, and how even the oldest connections can still surprise. Or alternately, vanish, leaving some people behind to wonder how they got where they are and how to avoid ending up where they don’t want to be, be it in the mid-fucking-west, or driving aimlessly through a treacherous idyll.