Omni Podcast: Richard Russo on "That Old Cape Magic"

Tom on August 18, 2009

I've spent my share of time driving up and down the one- and two-lane highways of Cape Cod, but never with an urn full of ashes in my trunk. That's the sort of baggage, though, that weighs heavily in Richard Russo's new novel, That Old Cape Magic. Jack Griffin is a middle-aged screenwriter-turned-academic for whom, like his miserably matched parents before him, the Cape has always functioned as both a vacation spot (rentals only!) and an idea, an ideal, of a life better lived. Urn or no urn (actually there are two), That Old Cape Magic is a story of weddings more than funerals, which any Shakespeare fan can tell you means it's a comedy. But the comedy here, as any Russo fan won't be surprised to hear, is seasoned by the compromises and hard-won (but often ignored) lessons of life as we actually end up living it.

And you might say the same of our interview, which took place at the beginning of the summer at BookExpo in New York: I don't think I've ever written "[laughs]" so much in an interview transcript, but the laughter was often rueful as well as joyous. Russo has the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in publishing, and he was indeed excellent company--funny, friendly, and wise--in the few minutes we got to spend talking about his new book. You can listen below, or, further below, read along. "That Old Cape Magic": I kind of want to snap my fingers when I say it.

Russo: [laughs] "Cape" is, of course, Cape Cod, and nearly the whole book is spent in various of its towns, or especially driving up and down Route 6, or 6A, or 28. But it's unclear how magical it actually is.

Russo: Yeah, the magic alluded to is the ability of places like Cape Cod, and Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket to recede before you, especially if you're looking for real estate. The main character of this book, Jack Griffin, his parents always took him to the Cape when he was a boy. They were confirmed renters as academics, but they always dreamed of one day owning a house on the Cape. Every year they go back, everything has become just a little bit more expensive than it was the year before, so no matter how well they do, they're always exactly that far behind.

When I was young, I got taken to Martha's Vineyard one summer. Then when I got married, I started taking my then-young daughters there. My wife and I always thought, "What a magical place." We would only be there for probably a week in the summer, but it was "the" magical place for us. We always looked at real estate, and it always receded before us [laughs] magically.

That's part of the magic, of course, is that you can't afford it. If you could afford it, I think some of the magic would disappear. This is a book that's, I think in some ways, about that phenomenon, especially as Americans--why it is that we believe in a finer place, the sense that our lives would be different and better if we could just find a way to take that chimerical magic place and somehow get there.

It doesn't exist, of course, but... [laughs] Jack's parents, that's exactly the way they live. They're academics, and they've been, in their minds, exiled to the Mid-something-west. [laughter--they have a stronger term for it in the book.] It's basically 11 months of what they consider hell, for that one month on the Cape. Jack--the last thing he'd want to do is repeat his parents' marriage and follow the same track they'd been in, but yet somehow he seems stuck on Route 6.

Russo: Yes, he really does, and he's made a conscious effort throughout his life to make a very different marriage than his parents had because they were miserable. They made each other miserable. They depended--talk about the height of folly: they actually depended upon a place, Cape Cod, to save them, to save their marriage. Jack has done everything he can to separate himself from his memory of their misery, but also to craft for himself a marriage that has nothing really in common with his parents' marriage.

This is a book that comes to a couple of comic but ugly truths, the first of which is that you cannot escape your inheritance, your genetic inheritance and other, no matter how hard you try to push against it, no matter how hard you try to say, all right, I'm going to make all new mistakes. In fact, you make a lot of the old ones, never mind your determination not to.

So you can't escape your inheritance. Also, terrifyingly as it turns out, you can't even escape your in-laws'. [laughs] Your wife's inheritance.

Russo: That's right. You can't escape your wife's inheritance, which it seems like you should be able to do, right? [laughs] Jack kind of rebelled against his parents by going off to Hollywood and becoming a screenwriter, which they considered not writing in any intellectual sense. But now he's 55, and he left Hollywood a while ago. He's back in academia.

Russo: Trying to write fiction. He doesn't think of it this way, but he's actually, at this stage in his life, trying to write something that maybe they would acknowledge, something that they would see as real writing, and wondering why on earth it's so hard. We have a story within a story in this book, and it's the story of how one of Jack's early stories did not get written, and what comes between a writer and his material. What seems hard about it is not just that he's writing it for his parents, but that he's writing it about his parents and doesn't even realize it.

Russo: Yes, and trying to do everything he can to keep them out of the story. He's trying to keep them out of the story in much the same way he's tried to keep them out of his marriage and it's not working. He can't even keep them out of the trunk of his car.

Russo: Exactly. [laughs] As any reader of Straight Man will know, you have a gimlet eye towards academia. I've spent some time there myself, and I can just feel my soul being sucked out of me as you begin to talk about department politics and trying to work your way up the chain. But it's a great subject to come back to for you.

Russo: Yes, I thought of Straight Man as expelling probably all of that that was in me as a result of being in English departments all those years. But in fact there was a good deal more, and now in this book I get to really satirize both worlds, because I get to satirize the screenwriters' world as well. Those are very different worlds, but they're both, I think, in the way they take themselves so seriously and so importantly, they're both great targets for satire. You were talking about how you can't escape inheritances. If you can't escape, what can you do? How can you reckon with--especially with--a bad inheritance?

Russo: I deal in questions more than answers. [laughs] If I can raise a question that neither of us knows the answer to, I feel my work here is done. [laughs] I'm the one dealing in questions here.

Russo: I think that the great thing that happens to Jack Griffin in this novel is that he recognizes finally something that his wife has known for a long time, and something that probably everybody who knows Jack knows but him. I don't necessarily want to ruin the suspense, but I think that what's ailing Jack as a man, as an artist, is a failure to realize something so simple that is also part of his inheritance. Something so simple that when it comes to him at the end of the book, it's a blinding revelation and part of what is so, for me at least, so wonderful about his arriving at it is that it is part of his inheritance. And for Jack, and I think for a lot of us, we understand that a lot of our inheritance we wish otherwise.

As Jack says as he watches his nose take over the center of his face, and he watches his hair recede in exactly the way his father's hair receded. And he remembers all that malignant toxic argument that used to take place between his parents when he was a boy. He has these negative memories.

So negative that he's been blind to certain realities about his parents' lives and his own life. And so if there is redemption for those of us who get quarrelsome about our genetic inheritance, what slender consolation there may be is that you have been given amongst all these toxic gifts-- we always remember Philip Larkin's line: "They fuck you up, your mom and dad. They do not mean to but they do." In addition to that, there are also gifts. If you ignore them, if you ignore those wonderful gifts, that can be more toxic. That can be perhaps the most toxic thing. So part of it is self-understanding, and understanding that the genetic package that you have gotten, some of which you regret, is as complex as we are. I wanted to step to the beginning of the book and talk a little bit about the central marriage of the book, Jack and Joy. And the story begins, basically, when he makes the mistake of doing what she tells him to do. It's the end of the school year and they have a tradition of going off to the Cape and for various reasons it's not quite happening the way it has in other years. And she says, "Just go." And he goes. [laughs]

Russo: Right. Right. That scene is, right there, not only a portrait of a marriage but a portrait of marriage, because he knew he shouldn't go.

Russo: Yes, yes. Jack is an interesting guy in that he almost always knows what to do, but the knowledge isn't particularly helpful. [laughs] And it is that way in life, I think. You always think that knowledge will set you free but it is surprising how many times it doesn't.

Jack knows he is doing the wrong thing. He just can't find a way not to do it. He's kind of that way all the way through the book. And you understand I think fairly early on, as he says, "All right, fine. I'll go," he's made a small mistake that is going to turn into a slightly larger mistake and then a slightly larger mistake. Then by the beginning of book two he realizes that he is in a way this is a marriage that seemed rock solid in the beginning of the book. Now it's kind of circling the drain. [laughs] From that tiny opening--

Russo: Yes. The opening shot across the bow that you think would just be the easiest thing in the world, the easiest mistake in the world to correct. Yet the kind of story I love actually is where somebody makes a tiny gesture at the beginning of something, the significance of which is clearer to other people than to him. Then you just watch him, you just [laughs] watch the descent from there on, which becomes free fall very quickly. Do you feel that way as a writer, that you are watching his free fall? Or are you pulling strings? Which way do you feel that your characters--

Russo: No--I'm aiding him in his free fall in any way I can, of course--but no, I think this is his doing. What I share with him is not what happens to him but my sense of the way life is. I mean, almost all the things that I regret most in my life began very small. It's like that line from The Sun Also Rises. One character asks another character, "How did you go broke?" And the response is, "Gradually, and then all at once." [laughs]

That's the way fiction works. I think good stories work gradually and then all at once. You know, a good story is like a poker game where everybody antes a nickel and then suddenly there's more in the pot than anybody can afford to lose. That's what we are in it for, I think. But yet, despite all this unraveling, this is a story of weddings. It's structured around weddings on the Cape. Do you see the genetic legacy continuing?

Russo: I don't, actually. He spends a lot of time thinking about his parents' marriage, but in the second half of the book he spends a lot of time thinking about his daughter's marriage. At the end of the first half of the book, his daughter does something so wonderful that for a brief moment it looks like her act of kindness, which breaks a kind of genetic pattern in a way--it's an act of selflessness and an act of kindness that absolutely takes his breath away. And it makes him think for a brief moment that she has the power to redeem him, his wife, their marriage, their lives together, everything that they have built together.

But ultimately that's something that he will have to do for himself. But he spends a lot of time in the second half of the book thinking about his daughter's marriage. I think that he thinks, quite rightly, that it's going to be like every other marriage in that it's going to be challenging in ways that Laura, the daughter, cannot possibly imagine. And that possibly even her virtue, her goodness, her fundamental decency that allows her to behave that way--in some ways, as in life, even our best impulses, even the goodness that we have sometimes opens the wrong door, the wrong window, allows the worm to enter the apple.

And he doesn't want that to be true for her. He'd like to save her from that. But I don't think you get the sense at the end of this book that what we're looking at here is fate or predestination. We're going to do things that have consequences that are traceable only to us. And that's the good news. Yeah, I like that parallel, that her act, her good act, is as tiny in a way as his act that begins it, but they both open up these vast worlds.

Russo: Yes.

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