That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo hasn't been a regular for me like he is for some academics.  I read Straight Man on the recommendation of a grad school friend, and it was enjoyable, funny enough and sad at times, but it didn't make me a Russo fan.

That Old Cape Magic is softer, less hard-edged and more forgiving.  The story begins with a narrator who can't precisely explain why he's reflecting on his east-coast life as a professor and his 34-year marriage.  We slowly learn that he's hauling his father's ashes around, and that his father's death was recent.  This is not living the examined life, but it is the way tragedy works, sneaking in on the edges of consciousness in bite-sized shockwaves.  There's so much that the narrator understands about his life, and yet so little that he really grasps, and the frequent phonecalls from his comically self-absorbed mother derail him over and over.  It's as though we're peeking into his first emotional reflections, and there's something touching about how little he can fathom himself as he's sifting through the history of his family and his wife's family and the basic disconnects that exist there.  Disconnects that are subtle, not epic, and yet the reader sees how far they have grown apart thanks to Russo's brilliantly indirect writing.

When he leaves his wife, at first he's just annoyed with her schedule, and then suddenly he realizes that something else is wrong.  He asks her, and learns that she fell in love with a mutual friend years ago, though the emotional affair was not realized in physical terms.  Rather than stay and deal with the aftermath, he just leaves, going back to their old life in L.A. for a year.  Oddly, he goes to that very friend with whom she was infatuated for many years, his old screenwriting partner.   For a year he stays there, but that year is left out of the narrative except in description.  His mother died, so in fact the year in L.A. was in great part spent in a nursing home in Indiana.  And now he's walking around with his mother's sarcastic voice in his head, all the time.

The climax of the story is tragic, farcical, and emotionally resonant.  His daughter, Laura, is getting married, and so the families are back together again, he and his wife in the same place.  Both have brought dates to the wedding, though they have not discussed divorce.  Twin brothers-in-law throw punches, a wheelchair ramp collapses, his wife's family patriarch lands in a wheelchair upside down.  Everyone is taken to the hospital for stitches, broken fingers, head injuries... It could be hilarious, but Russo holds anything slapstick back, and instead there's a genuinely mournful quality to even the silliest moments.  In the end, he is able to leave his parents' ashes on Cape Cod, his mother on one side and his father on the other, as requested.  He also reconciles with his wife, and the swiftness and incompleteness of her forgiveness are breathtaking.  He asks if he killed it all, and she says "You only killed the parts that could be killed."

That's love.

(Thanks to Laura for the recommendation!  And Happy Thanksgiving.)

will grayson, will grayson

When John Green and David Levithan got together to make a novel, they took a seemingly silly premise and make it sing.  Two boys both named Will Grayson from nearby suburbs of Chicago cross paths in a wildly unlikely way.  We follow their alternating narration from chapter to chapter, these two Will Graysons.  I can just hear the authors giggling at the set up.

Will Grayson #1 is the best friend of big, gay, soon-to-be high school musical director Tiny, and he has two rules:  "1. Don't care too much.  2.  Shut up.  Everything unfortunate that has ever happened to me has stemmed from failure to follow one of the rules." (p. 5)  As Tiny's amazing gay musical takes off, this Will Grayson feels left out, alone, but he does begin to cozy up to new friend and soon-to-be girlfriend Jane.  Tiny set him up with Jane, but Will Grayson #1 is still feeling strange about how he and Tiny seem to be growing apart as the big day of the production approaches. 

The other Will Grayson is himself gay, albeit deeply closeted at school, and, after a failed attempt to meet his online paramour "Isaac" in Chicago leads him to a porn store... well, to save the spoilers, he runs into the other Will Grayson, they meet and marvel, and Will Grayson #2 quickly becomes Tiny's boyfriend.  So quickly that it's a bit too intense, of course, as these things are wont to be on the high school romance front.  But WG#2 comes out to his mom in a scene that ranks pretty high in all-time teen-parent interactions:

     "mom:  how was chicago?
      me:  look, mom, i'm totally gay, and i'd appreciate
      it if you could get the whole freakout over with 
     now, because, yeah, we have the rest of our lives to deal 
     with it, but the sooner we through the agony part, the better.
     mom: the agony part?
     me:  you know, you praying for my soul and cursing
     me for not giving you grandbabies with a wifey and
     saying how incredibly disappointed you are.
     mom:  you really think i'd do that?
     me: it's your right, i guess.  but if you want to skip that
     step, it's fine with me.
     mom:  i think i want to skip that step."

The thing is, the story is big and overdone and maybe there are too many details... maybe that's a given in this kind of collaboration.  I'd like to say that Green's more measured outlook is wildly complemented by Levithan's bouncier prose (see Boy Meets Boy for the ultimate example), but I'm not sure they haven't reversed their usual world views here.  The authors state that they did, in fact, write this in alternating chapters, but it's Levithan whose Will Grayson is clinically depressed, though he does pull off the most triumphant post-break-up appreciation of Tiny at the end.  And Green's Will Grayson is a little (okay, a lot) insecure and self-absorbed, though he comes around in the end too.

So that's the review.  All thumbs up.  Read it, revel in it, enjoy it, and score one for a novel about gay teenagers that is populated by multi-dimensional characters at every turn. 

A few of my favorite quotes:

About best friends:  "I think about how much depends upon a best friend.  When you wake up in the morning you swing your legs out of bed and you put your feet on the ground and you stand up.  You don't scoot to the edge of the bed and look down to make sure the floor is there.  The floor is always there.  Until it's not." (193)

About sex and love:  "How can our sentient fucking lives revolve around something slugs can do.  I mean, who you want to screw and whether you screw them?  Those are important questions, I guess.  But they're not that important.  You know what's important?  Who would you die for?  Who do you wake up at five forty-five in the morning for even though you don't know why he needs you?  Whose drunken nose would you pick?" (259)

About friendship troubles:  "When you date someone, you have the markers along the way, right:  You kiss, you have The Talk, you say the Three Little Words, you sit on a swing set and break up. [...]  But with friendship, there's nothing like that.  Being in a relationship, that's something you choose. Being friends, that's just something you are." (260)

On breaking up:  "this is why we call people exes, i guess--because the paths that cross in the middle end up separating at the end.  it's too easy to see an X as a cross-out.  it's not, because there's no way to cross out something like that.  the X is a diagram of two paths." (277)

On what is hot:  "'Compassion is hot,' she says as we kiss."(292)

A concluding aside:  That's the last book to be read as a full-on nonstop read until November draws to a close.  I hereby declare for the world to hear (hi, world) that I will get this article written and submitted by Monday, November 29, and I'll do it the way I usually do when motivation is low:  by starting a couple of really amazing books and making myself write so that I can read chapters as rewards.  Doctorow's For the Win and Westerfield's Leviathan are on the agenda.  If those get too bleak, I'll be back to YA romance/realistic fiction or whatever motivates the writing.