Chances Are . . . by Richard Russo: Russo almost writes a Crime Novel, but manages to avoid it.

Chances Are . . .Chances Are . . .

by Richard Russo

Hardcover, 302pg.
Knopf Publishing Group, 2019
Read: August 5 – 6, 2019

What were the odds these three would end up assigned to the same freshman-dorm suite at Minerva College on the Connecticut coast? Because yank out one thread from the fabric of human destiny, and everything unravels. Though it could also be said that things have a tendency to unravel regardless.

Whatever the odds were, three very different freshman from very different backgrounds did end up assigned to the same dorm suite and ended up working in the kitchen together. It’s the kind of friendship created by shared living space, shared experience and intense emotions (college in general, and the Vietnam Draft they watched on TV together). They became the Three Musketeers—in spirit and in name to those who knew them—and then they left Minerva College and started their lives. Then, yes, things unraveled.

It’s now forty-four years later and they reunite at Lincoln’s Martha’s Vineyard home for one last hurrah before Lincoln sells the family home. The three of them spent plenty of time there in college, and what better way to prepare to sell? But there’s a shadow over their reunion (and not just the fact that they’re all showing their age in different ways).

As with Dumas’ trio, there was a fourth—like them, yet not. Her name was Jacy. All three men were in love with her, but in a true one for all fashion, they didn’t try to see if there was any chance for a relationship with any of them. On the last weekend they spent in this house, a few weeks after graduation, Jacy left early one morning and was never seen again. All three—Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey—are haunted by memories of that weekend as they assemble.

Each man responds to these memories differently, Teddy indulges in self-introspection, Mickey drinks a lot and spends a good deal of time planning for the trio to catch some live music. Lincoln starts looking for an explanation—and ends up talking to a retired police officer who remembered the case, tries to build a case against a neighbor, and generally stirs up trouble asking questions.

This sounds like the setup of a Crime Novel, doesn’t it? I’ve read so many book blurbs that this sounds like that I started expecting this to be Russo’s take on Crime Fiction. While we do learn what happened to Jacy and why; the book is about so much more. It’s about friendship, fleeting youth, the expectations of others, aging, and love—probably a few other things, too.

“How about a cup of coffee?”

“I had one on the ferry. ”

“Doesn’t mean you can’t have another.”

“With me it does, actually.” In fact, it was distinctly possible the near-constant state of gastric distress Lincoln suffered these days was a symptom of an as-yet-undetected ulcer traceable to the 2008 financial meltdown. On the other hand, it might be nothing more than acid reflux, which came with the territory of getting old. His wife, being a woman, wanted clarity on this issue, whereas Lincoln himself, not being one, was content to dwell in uncertainty a while longer.

I don’t think I even really looked at the blurb for this, I just knew it was a new Richard Russo novel that didn’t feature Sully. That was enough for me to put it on reserve at the library weeks ago, so I could be one of the (possibly the) first to get my hands on it. As no two of his books are really the same kind of thing, it made for a pleasant surprise that way.

I don’t know that I was captivated from the get-go, but these three (and poor Jacy) grew on me, each had a story that was familiar, yet felt fresh. These were complicated me with complicated feelings—well, you’re never sure about Mickey, he seems pretty straightforward. We spend most of the novel seeing things (past and present) from Lincoln and Teddy’s perspectives—which helps us see everything going on with them, and primes us to pay close attention when it shifts for Mickey’s perspective.

I’m ignoring most of my notes now because I think I’ve really said everything I needed to say. Russo’s about as close as you can get to a sure thing in writing today and he brings that skill to these pages and these characters. Chances Are . . . is not something I’ll look forward to rereading like Straight Man, or as powerful as Empire Falls or as moving as Bridge of Sighs, but more interesting—and with more staying power—than That Old Cape Magic or anything published before Straight Man (not that any of those were bad, they just don’t appeal to me the way his latter works do). Still, there’s an ineffable quality to this work that will make me keep thinking about it—the power of friendship, lost love, how our youth controls our futures, and what really anchors us to this world.

I liked the story, I liked the characters, Russo can’t write a bad anything—there’s a lot to commend this book, and little to discourage a potential reader. Russo’s one of the best America has to offer right now, and this is further evidence of that.

—–

4 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

Advertisements

United States of Books – Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Believe it or not — this was almost a lot longer, but I trimmed a lot to hopefully make it better.

Empire FallsEmpire Falls

by Richard Russo

Hardcover, 483 pg.
Knopf, 2001


A few years ago, my parents took a trip through New England in the Fall to look at the leaves — I know, not an original idea, but for people from the Northwest, it’s not as common as it is for others. One of the places they drove through was Empire Falls and were telling me about some HBO series/book based there — I was vaguely aware of the book, having recently finished Russo’s Straight Man and told them that they’d probably enjoy it. I don’t think either of them gave it a shot (I could be wrong).

A few months later, I got around to reading it myself — wow. It so different in style and content from Straight Man, but it took me a long time to read, and (best of all) it was fantastic. It sent me reeling and made me want to read more by Russo. Sadly, the next book I read by him just about killed that (That Old Cape Magic). A couple of years go by and I decide to read all of his novels in order. When I get to Empire Falls, I skipped it. I just couldn’t do it again. I really didn’t enjoy about half of Russo’s novels, but I couldn’t deny the power of them, nor his skill. Nobody’s Fool, for example, I really didn’t enjoy — but here I am a couple of years later, and I still find myself thinking about a couple of characters and scenes at least three times a month. That’s staying power. (no, I haven’t gotten to the sequel that came out this year, for reasons I don’t fully understand)

Incidentally, I liked That Old Cape Magic better the second time around — actually, I think that was true for Straight Man, too. Liking Cape Magic was almost a given (would be hard to like it less), but I really enjoyed Straight Man the first time out — the second time I loved it. Both of those books deal with a different kinds characters than the rest of his books (including Empire Falls, which I’m getting to — I promise). Most of his books are about small towns and their citizens, usually dealing with economic hardships on the municipal and individual level. Frequently, cafes and bars are used to get the characters to interact with each other and there’s typically one guy who drinks too much, is fairly unreliable, yet everyone likes and enables. There’s humor, tragedy, history (actual and fictional), mixed with character and family struggles. Empire Falls checks every single box on the “what makes a Richard Russo novel” list, but does it bigger. If you’ve read Empire Falls, you’ve read almost every one of his books — which is not to say you shouldn’t read the rest (especially Straight Man and Bridge of Sighs) — but you’ll get a good idea what kind of things Russo typically deals with and how he does it.

Richard Russo is what Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby and Matthew Norman (and many others, probably, but these are the three I’m most familiar with) could easily become if they got a little more serious and a little darker. On the whole, the latter three are more entertaining (and funnier) — but Russo can pull that off when he wants to. You could also say that Russo is what Jonathan Franzen could be if he lightened up and got less pretentious. But mostly, you can say that I’m a giant fan.

Why am I blathering on? Mostly trying to give context for this post, but partially because it is just daunting to try to talk about this book — especially in something that’d make a decent-length blog post and not a full-fledged dissertation. But I’d better suck it up and get to it.

Empire Falls won Richard Russo his (seemingly) inevitable Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and stands as one of the greatest achievements in his storied career. It is at once a story about a town and a man, microcosms for the state and the nation; it’s both sweeping and epic while being personal and intimate.

The story centers on Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill in Empire Falls, ME. He has an ex-wife (who I truly despised), a daughter (who I wanted more of), an ex-mother-in-law that seems to like and respect him a lot more than her own daughter, s (even if they don’t see eye to eye much lately). But more importantly he has a patron — the town matriarch, owner of the Empire Grill, and most of the various places of employment in town. She’s a patron, a would-be surrogate mother (for a select few), and petty tyrant over the city. It’s one of those small towns where the mayor/council/etc. have real power, but it’s only the power she lets them have, you know? Francine Whiting isn’t evil — well, I’ll let you decide for yourself — but at the end of the day, she thinks she’s doing what is right for Empire Falls, the Whiting legacy and her daughter — whether or not anyone wants what she thinks is best. She still could be evil, I guess, and I could very likely made a case for it. Anyhow, let the reader decide.

The trials and dreams and efforts of Miles and his family as he tries to do something different with his life are the core of the novel — but they’re not all of it. The town is full of interesting people — many aren’t vital to the overall story (but you can’t know until the end who those are), but they all add flavor. Most are so fleshed out that you could imagine a short story/novel centered on them. While reading Song in Ordinary Time a few months back, I kept asking myself what made the people in that novel so unlikeable when in many ways they reminded me of Empire Falls‘ cast. I came to this conclusion (and have since reconsidered and still think it’s basically right): Russo uses the flaws in his characters to emphasize their humanity, Morris uses the flaws to emphasize their flaws.

But I come not to bury Morris (again), but to talk about Empire Falls, so let me focus on this a bit more: the flawed humanity isn’t pretty, it’s frequently ugly, people who make mistakes (some tragic, some dumb) are usually trying to do the right/moral/noble thing and it doesn’t work. But it’s real. This could all be real. Even Janice, Miles’ ex, is a well-developed character — and I think I’ve met a handful of people just like her — and I wouldn’t dislike her as much as I did if Russo hadn’t nailed the writing.

There’s an event towards the end — one of the two or three that you ultimately realize the whole novel has been leading up to — that in 2001 would’ve been truly shocking (shocked me a few years ago), but in many ways it’s de rigueur now. 2016 readers might be bored by it, but I can’t imagine that many readers in 2001 were. I’m not going to say more — just if you read this, put yourself in the shoes of readers from 15 years ago when you get to that bit.

Yes, Empire Falls is slow (sometimes), ponderous (sometimes) but it’s also inspiring (sometimes), heartwarming (sometimes) and many other things that I could parenthetically qualify. But every negative about it is utterly worth it for the positives.

What I learned about Maine: (haven’t done this in awhile, whoops). It’s a beautiful state, filled with people who could be better educated, who aren’t vocationally ready for what’s coming for them thanks to the technological shift in jobs. It’s a state where people, nature and industry who have been damaged by reckless policies and practices. It’s a state where nature exerts itself every now and then to remind people how powerful it is. Basically, Maine’s just like every other state in the union — just a little different.

One more thing, not that this’ll surprise many, but I’d advise skipping the HBO miniseries — yeah, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation, it just doesn’t have the heart.

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t read this book for this series of posts — breaking a personal resolution. There were 3 reasons for this: 1. Time; 2. I really wasn’t up for the emotional punches this delivers, and 3. I didn’t need to — I still remember it well enough to discuss at a length greater than I have despite being 4 years and change since I read it. That right there should tell you something about the book — hundreds of books later and I almost feel like I read it a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure that this is the Russo novel I’d tell people to start with (probably Straight Man), and I don’t think it’s his best (probably Bridge of Sighs (tells a story almost as epic in scope, with greater economy and greater depth when it comes to individual characters), but there’s no denying the talent on display here, the greatness of the execution, the vibrancy of the characters, or the impact it has on the reader. No brainer, 5 Stars from me.

—–

5 Stars

Dusted Off: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Empire FallsEmpire Falls by Richard Russo
Hardcover, 483 pg.
Knopf, 2011
Read: May 22-27, 2012

Wow. Just wow. Not sure what else to say.

I’d suspected/wondered that something like the big climactic event was going to happen–yet when it happened, I was on the edge of my seat, saying “No fraking way!” (and just about decapitated my son who interrupted me during the middle of it) But even before that, the book had grabbed me with its humor, tragedy and humanity.

This one’s going to haunt me (in good and bad ways) for a long time.

—–

5 Stars

Random Ruminations: Richard Russo and Looking Ahead to 2014

I’m about at the halfway point in Richard Russo’s The Bridge of Sighs and have just about decided that if I were to find myself in a Master’s program in Literature, I could very easily be content studying the minutiae of his work. I’m sure I could find enough for a few theses at least. Of course, I have no incentive to do more than come up with vague notions and theories, so I’ll have to trust that somewhere out there is an academic with a stronger drive than I and hope I run across their writing.

Besides, if I actually had the chance to do that kind of reading, researching and writing, I’d end up going with Rex Stout, Robert B. Parker or Jim Butcher.

When I finish this book, I’ll be just three books short of most of my goals for the year (10 short of the total I’d hoped to hit — still might make that, but it’s looking grim). I’ll have read all of Russo’s novels at least once; I’m one short of Hemingway’s novels (and a couple of his posthumous works, which I typically don’t do); and 1 to go in both the Stephanie Plum and Kinsey Millhone series to get up to this year’s release (I did that with Jack Reacher this week, and a couple weeks ago totally caught up on the Andy Carpenter books). I’m not sure that actually made sense — hopefully my year-end 2013 post will be clearer.

I’m pretty clueless about what I hope to accomplish in 2014 — get caught up on the Temeraire novels (an unfulfilled 2013 goal), read the rest of the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith and Longmire books. But nothing of a more serious vein. Need to get to work on that — and, as always, I’m open to suggestions.

Which, by the way, is a long way of saying I’m not going to get a rant, rave, or review up today — Russo’s sapping all my attention and energy for the moment, so I could only jot down these few random thoughts.

Have a good Friday, and — always, always — thanks for reading.

Dusted Off: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

That Old Cape MagicThat Old Cape Magic

by Richard Russo
Hardcover, 261 pg.
Knopf, 2009

I feel a little odd giving something by a legendary guy like Russo 2 out of 5 stars, but…eh. It was either not as funny as it was trying to be (while telling a serious story), or it was a serious (somewhat tragic) book that accidentally elicited chuckles. Either way, not entirely successful. It felt like Richard Russo tried to write a Jonathan Tropper novel and didn’t quite pull it off.

Well-written to be sure, and not a waste of reading time…but it wasn’t what it could’ve been. Sorta like the marriages the book talked about that were crumbling in the light of the two nascent ones.

—–

2 Stars