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