CHANCES ARE… by Richard Russo (Knopf, 301 pp., $26.95)
Man does not live by sun and sand alone — even man on vacation. When bored, do we not fret? Ah, but if you prick our interest, do we not read?
The truth is that men, too, need beach books. Those big Father’s Day biographies of presidents and generals have their place, but this summer, Richard Russo’s new novel “Chances Are…” will appear in stores as temptingly as a beer and sunscreen discount pack and will hold special appeal for guys otherwise rarely willing to dip a toe into the murky waters of fiction.
Baby boomers in particular, take note. “Chances Are…” is about a trio of 66-year-old friends: sensitive Teddy Novak, a book editor; hard-living musician Mickey Girardi; and stolid businessman Lincoln Moser, who inherited a house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother. It’s September 2015 and the Three Musketeers of fictional Minerva College, as they once fancied themselves, have reunited for a last weekend fling at the house before it goes on the market.
But of course we’re not just in for 300 pages of reminiscence and regret, because what fun would that be? Russo, accordingly, serves up a mystery in the context of his reunion story. The last time the fellows convened in this place was in the summer of 1971, after graduation, with the sword of Vietnam hanging over them. They were accompanied, on that occasion, by the captivating young woman with whom all of them were in love — and who slipped away one morning, leaving a note and no further trace of herself except in their hearts.
Or so it would seem. You will not be surprised to learn that these men have secrets (don’t we all?) and that the secrets are connected to the young woman who vanished. But once you get going you’ll be interested in finding out what those secrets are, and surprised when you get the answers.
Let’s not kid ourselves: This is not Russo’s finest effort. The prose is as plain and functional as the kitchen of a vacation rental and the characters seem a bit stock. At times, moreover, the maestro conducts this particular summer concert with a heavy hand. A gay former professor is named Tom Ford. A Greek immigrant, undone by a lover who cannot abide his humble background, is named (democratically enough) Demopoulos.
Worst of all, the vanished apple of our trio’s eyes is named Jacy Rockafellow, evidently combining the sacrificial virtues of Jesus Christ with the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe. None of the book’s women are as richly drawn as the men, but Russo is concerned with the horrible things men do to women and to which Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey’s generation is at last awakening.
Despite its shortcomings, “Chances Are. . .” is an engrossing and well-crafted summer entertainment that plays to the author’s strengths. As usual, Russo is attuned to the complicated resentments of class and the possibility, never terribly far below the surface, of violence erupting among men as it does periodically in this book. He’s also good at exploring the way time changes us. Teddy had enjoyed visiting a monastery in his youth, “yet over the years, a secular monasticism had crept into his everyday life, so the two worlds weren’t quite so different anymore.”
Ultimately, Teddy and Mickey will find a measure of liberation, and Lincoln will serve as their unwitting emancipator. There’s also rock and roll, a prostate joke and some harmless speculation on the role of chance in shaping our lives. That’s a lot of ground for a day or two at the beach, so no complaining.