It’s a guys’ world, after all — or used to be. And who better to chronicle these #MeToo moments than Richard Russo, whose first novel in 10 years hits the ball out of the park.
Titled after the Johnny Mathis hit, “Chances Are…,” the novel addresses ties that bind and sever, paths not taken, dreams unfulfilled — all the trademark Russo tropes. Along with his wry eye for irony and regret, he offers up a compelling mystery. Savvy readers who pride themselves on anticipating a plot twist, spotting a red herring, and identifying the who-did-it are in for a surprise.
Like a 21st century version of “The Big Chill,” the novel explores a reunion of old friends — “people for whom summer wasn’t a verb” – on Martha’s Vineyard. The three former college classmates are Lincoln, the son of failed Arizona businessman Wolfgang Amadeus Moser ; Teddy, a Midwesterner, and the only child of distracted high school English teachers “whose lives had already been chock-full of kids before he came along”; and Mickey, the one boy among seven girls of a tough flag-flying West Haven construction worker.
“What were the odds that these three would end up assigned to the same freshman-dorm suite at Minerva College on the Connecticut coast?” Russo asks. “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.”
Unravel they do. As scholarship students slinging hash in a sorority house kitchen, they’re labelled hashers. All for one and one for all, they claim a fourth honorary Musketeer, Jacy Calloway, a sorority girl from Greenwich. Like three pining Gatsbys seeking the unattainable Daisy, they’re hopelessly smitten. Alas, Jacy is engaged to a preppy, conservative WASP named Vance — or maybe Lance, or Chance – forcing them to settle for mere friendship.
In a pivotal scene, the hashers watch the draft lottery on the sorority’s black and white TV. Mickey’s low number dooms him to Vietnam. Because, in 1971, the future is so unclear, the three men and Jacy plan one last weekend bash at the Chilmark house of Lincoln’s mother before they lose both the refuge of college and each other. During that valedictory weekend, Jacy vanishes without a trace.
Four decades later, now 66, they reunite at the same house, which Lincoln, suffering “Cherry-Orchard” agony, is trying to decide whether to go against his late mother’s wishes and sell. Married to the lovely Anita and with kids and grandkids, he’s become a real estate broker. He needs the money.
Teddy, a publisher of small press spiritual tomes, endures panic attacks that require visits to mental wards and monasteries. Mickey, a twice-divorced rock musician with a ready temper and raised fists, now lives on Cape Cod. All three arrive on the Vineyard burdened by emotional baggage, the sense of youthful promises unfulfilled, and their lingering obsession with Jacy – that missing link but palpable presence in their individual and joint history. “What would Jacy think if she could see them now? Lincoln wondered. Three goddamn old men.”
Though chapters switch among the male points of view, and ricochet from past to present, the central focus remains on Jacy: What happened to her? Did she ever leave the island? Are her bones buried underneath the Chilmark property?
Suspects surface: Why not the nearest neighbor, Trump sign bannering his yard, who once groped Jacy and hopes to buy Lincoln’s property? What about the alcoholic cop in charge of investigating Jacy’s disappearance back in 1971? Or his daughter-in-law, who unlocks the door to her newspaper office so Lincoln can check the microfilm?
Amid beer, wine, clam rolls, music, and walks, the friends reminisce as their personal experiences round out Jacy’s portrait: “Was it possible,” Teddy wonders, “that the three of them here on the Vineyard again after so many years might just blend a magic potion powerful enough to summon her?” In their efforts, secrets are shared, and revelations accumulate; and figuring out what happened to Jacy is “like coming across an old jigsaw puzzle in the back of the closet, with half its pieces missing.”
Such astute insight is classic Russo — a veritable Bartlett’s Quotations of the telling aperçu.
On family, friendship, class, money, marriage, fathers and sons — you name it — he confers the apt remark. For example, addressing sexual inequality, Teddy says, “Men. We ignore women when they’re right and we start wars and generally screw things up.” Professionally sick of the domestic violence that dogs the year-round islanders, the retired cop admits, “We don’t do right by girls.” Lincoln wonders, for the first time, if his mother had been unhappy. “Each new, unwanted epiphany furthered untethered him.” What haunts their reunion is that “[Jacy’s] more real here for some reason.”
When the denouement comes, it’s a stunner. Nevertheless, all bombshells feel earned. If you’re on a hammock in the Vineyard or under a tent in Acadia, or slumped over the fire escape of your hot city apartment, chances are your chances are awfully good that you’ll lap up this gripping, wise, and wonderful summer treat.
By Richard Russo
Knopf, 302 pp., $26.95
Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.