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That Old Cape Magic [DECKLE EDGE] (Hardcover)

A Q&A with Richard Russo

Question: Apparently there is a wedding phenomenon you have termed "Table 17." What exactly is that and how does it relate to this novel?

Richard Russo: A few years ago my wife and I were invited to a wedding and were seated at what was clearly a "leftover" table. It reminded me of the final teams who get into the NCAA tournament. You can tell by their seeding that they were the last ones in, that they almost didn't make the grade. Table 17 works thematically in the novel because being among strangers, not sure whether you belong, may be the main character's future if he can't find a way to slow his downward spiral.

Question: You have said that That Old Cape Magic began as a short story. What was the moment you knew it was calling out to be a novel?

Richard Russo: Griffin, my main character, begins the story on his way to a wedding with his father's urn in the trunk of his car. I planned for him to scatter the ashes (his past), put his future in danger at the wedding (his present) and then pull back from disaster at the last moment. But then he pulled over to the side of the road in his convertible to take a phone call from his mother, at the end of which a seagull sh**s on him. At that moment, in part because Griffin blames her, he and I both had a sinking feeling. You can resolve thematic issues of past, present and future in a twenty page story, but if you allow a sh**ting seagull into it, you’ve suddenly moved on to something much larger.

Question: Why did you choose the Cape?

Richard Russo: For some time I've been fascinated with the idea of "a finer place" (see Lucy Lynch and Bobby Marconi in Bridge of Sighs). I'm talking about both fiction and real life. Why do people believe that happiness is more likely to find you in one place than another? It has something with what you can and can't afford, what you think you'll one day be able to swing if things go well. Except that even when they go well, you discover it's still unaffordable, which gives the desired place a magical quality. The faster you run toward it, the faster it runs away from you. I chose the Cape because it's always been expensive and just keeps getting more so, but it could have been any number of similar places. For Griffin's parents, two academics, a house on the Cape would have always been just beyond their reach. One of their many dubious genetic gifts to Griffin is a sense that happiness is always on the horizon, never where you're standing. Very American, I think.

Question: That Old Cape Magic is book ended by two weddings and becomes the story of Griffin's own marriage as well as that of his parents and the impending one of his daughter. Is there some loaded charge to weddings that unleashes the past and threatens the future in a way unlike other events? Or, in other words, what were you up to in framing your story with two weddings?

Richard Russo: It probably won't surprise readers to discover that both my daughters were married during the time I was writing this book, which, if it does well, will pay for their weddings. One of our girls was married in London, which except for the expense made things easier on my wife and me. Living in the states, how much could we really be blamed for things that went wrong so far from home? Our other daughter was married in the coastal Maine town where we live, and her wedding was therefore larger. My wife and I feared that our families, who were largely unknown to each other and living on opposite sides of the country (not to mention the political spectrum), might be fissionable. Mostly we feared for the family of the groom, and maybe even the town, since we hoped to continue living there. In the second wedding of That Old Cape Magic I imagined an absolutely catastrophic wedding in hopes it might act as a talisman against real-life disaster, which it appears to have done.

Planning your children's weddings also gets you thinking back to your own and making the inevitable comparisons. My wife and I were grad-student poor when we got married in Tucson, and our parents were only marginally better off. Our honeymoon was four days in Mexico. We'd booked the sleeper car but managed to arrive late, actually jumping onto the moving train. They'd given our sleeper to someone else and we had to sit in the aisles on our luggage for several hours until seats became available. Neither of us got a wink of sleep and, naturally, when we arrived in Mazatlan early the next morning, our room wasn't ready. We changed into bathing suits, went to the beach and immediately fell asleep under the brutal tropical sun. By the time we woke up we were burned so badly we couldn't touch each other for the rest of the trip. But we were young and the tacos were good and so was the tequila and we'd brought plenty of books and we talked about our future and who we'd be in that future, and pretty damn quick it was thirty-five years later. That's just about how long the Griffins have been married when That Old Cape Magic opens.

Question: Griffin's parents, both academics trapped in what they call the "mid f***ing west," are such wonderful, sometimes maddening, often hilarious, always surprising characters. You've mined the satiric potential of academia before, most notably in Straight Man. Have you been longing to go back there?

Richard Russo: I thought I'd got all the academic satire out of my system with Straight Man, but apparently not. Actually, since writing that novel I've entered another world—movie making—that would be equally idiotic except that instead of academic scrip it involves real money. In this novel, because Griffin's a former screenwriter, I got to compare lunacies. It wasn't a fair fight, of course. Academics are really the only ones in their weight class (heavy).

Question: At the start of the novel Griffin is a man in his mid fifties who seemingly has everything going for him, a great marriage, a great daughter, the career he aspired to, basically everything he had on his wish list when first venturing out in adulthood. Then, within a year, he watches it all come unglued. It’s amazing how quickly that can happen, no?

Richard Russo: That's the other similarity between this book and Straight Man. In both novels we watch men who are tenured in life. Safe, in other words. But there's just this one little thread on the sweater. You know you should clip it, not pull it, but there are no scissors at hand and what's the worst that can happen? The answer to that question, in this instance, is That Old Cape Magic.

Question: Have you actually ever been to a wedding where a guest was trapped in a tree?

Richard Russo: I myself have never been to a wedding where a guest got stuck in a tree, but we're attending a wedding on the Cape this summer and I have high hopes.

One man struggles to cope, August 13, 2009
By D. Kuski

Richard Russo made his mark in the literary world with his books Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs. His newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, is about a middle-aged man that is having a difficult time coping with reality. Yet, while Jack Griffin is having trouble letting go of the past, the present is filled with slapstick-type comedy that Mr. Russo delivers with impeccable timing. And this, gives the reader a future filled with searches into their own life, lighten with comedy. It really was an enjoyment to read.

Well, let's get a little more in depth, shall we? As I mentioned prior, Jack Griffin, is the focal point of the story. He is a well-respected professor going through a mid-life crisis. At 55, he just lost his dad and will soon lose his daughter (she is getting married) this forces Jack to rethink his life. Most of the book is flashbacks from Jack's life. Jack's childhood was filled with despair. His parents were highly trained and brilliant professors, but their attitudes forced them to work demeaning jobs, well below their status.

As such, they also had a difficult time coping with reality. Always believing "the grass was greener on the other side" This leads to the title of the book. During the family's summer vacations, they would sing Frank Sinatra's song, That Old Black Magic, but since they vacationed in Cape Cod, they changed it to, That Old Cape Magic. This is key. The story begins with Jack driving over the same bridge his family crossed during those trips, singing that old tune, preparing to scatter his father's ashes on his way to his daughter's best friends' wedding.

The book's timeline is just about a year, and that year is packed full of wonderfully described locals, off-beat humor, soul searching, two weddings, incredible dialog, well-developed characters, and a plotline that delves the reader into their own search for answers. The book is good. Real good. But I could only give it 4-stars because it just doesn't quite live up to some of Russo's earlier works. Much like Jack and Joy Griffin, you can look at it two ways. Jack would say, this book deserves to be judged on its own merit. Joy would say, the author has raised the bar with his previous works and while good, That Old Cape Magic, falls just under that bar.

Another book I'd highly reommend is Clarence Cage's novel Ashes Divide: Ashes Divide (Four Horsemen Series, Book 1) the other great book I read this week.

Hmm . . . another meaningful bridge, August 5, 2009
By Dogberry "dogberrysheir" (Heading back to the bookshelves)

Since reading Straight Man, I have eagerly anticipated the release of each new Richard Russo novel, and That Old Cape Magic was no exception. The danger in anticipation, of course, is that the real thing just might not live up to your expectations. Following Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls is no easy task, either. Can you guess where this humble review is headed? Yep, I was a bit disappointed in TOCM. Not overly so, and it's still a fine book and a very good story, and Russo still does his amazing job of capturing the essence of fascinating, but somehow still believable characters. His delicate mixing of humor and tragedy is still strong. His ability to get the reader into the scene is amazing, and he writes the marital argument better than anyone, I think. This book was missing some of the more comedic foils in Russo's other books, but he's still drawn together an impressive cast. So what's wrong with the book? Maybe it's just a bit short. Maybe there was more story to tell. That was the feeling I came away with. If you are already a Russo fan, by all means, pick it up and read it; it's better than 99% of the other novels on the shelf. If you are new to Russo, however, save this one for later. Go back to Nobody's Fool or The Risk Pool or the Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls. Solid three stars for now, but I reserve the right to come back and bump it a bit after I've reflected for a while.