Chances Are…

Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, yet when you finally get together, you fall into a comfortable conversation as though you had seen each other just yesterday?  Good friends are like that.

In Richard Russo’s Chances Are... three college friends reunite on Martha’s Vineyard after years apart, and find they connect as they had years earlier, with an easy camaraderie but haunted by the ghost of the woman they all loved.  The old Johnny Mathis song in the book title creates the theme for Richard Russo’s latest story of relationships as Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey struggle through a long weekend of memories and surprising revelations.

I always imagine Paul Newman as one of Russo’s character, reprising his role in the movie adaptation of Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” None of the three main characters in Chances Are seem to have Newman’s charisma but together they present a dazzling composite.  Lincoln is a successful realtor in Las Vegas, who has inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother, and is now considering selling it. Teddy is owner of a small publishing house in upstate New York, who suffers from debilitating episodes.  Mickey, who went to Canada for a few years to avoid the Vietnam War draft, is a musician living on the island.

As their pasts are revealed, fathers figure prominently in their influence, all strangely different for each man, from Lincoln’s strict Calvinist father who tolerated no one, to Teddy’s pseudo intellectual father who had no time for anyone, to Mickey’s father of a large family who expected his youngest child and only son to follow his lead.  But the key character and major influence on the three college boys who bonded over working as hashers in a sorority house on campus was one of those sorority sisters – Jacy.  A seemingly free spirit, Jacy was the mascot to their group – their fourth Musketeer.

The mystery of Jacy’s disappearance years ago provides the suspense as the story evolves around the discovery of what really happened.  Russo delivers a surprising solution in his big reveal at the end of the novel, but the satisfaction of reading how each man developed and maintained a sense of community overwhelms the finale.

Russo, with acerbic wit and irreverence balances stories of his characters coming of age after college with their inevitable struggles as they are entering old age years later when they meet again. Their bond seems to have been the girl but Russo confirms they still have a strong connection beyond their youthful adoration of Jacy. They were there for each other as young men and Russo refreshes their connection years later.  Can their friendship last after all the secrets are revealed? Chances are their chances are awfully good…

Everybody’s Fool – Paul Newman Lives Again

9780307270641_p0_v1_s192x300   Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool embodied Richard Russo’s main character Sully so perfectly, I find it impossible to read the sequel – Everybody’s Fool –  without seeing Newman. This sequel to the dysfunctional lives of the citizens of North Bath focuses on Douglas Raymer who has gone from bumbling police officer to the Chief of Police.  Alas, another actor who cannot reprise his role – Douglas Raymer was played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Sully is back on his favorite stool at the White Horse Tavern, and slithers in and out of the narrative, along with real snakes discovered when the air conditioning in Raymer’s apartment building breaks down.  But Sully’s VA cardiologist tells him he may only have a year to live, and he is determined to finish life his way, keeping his condition from everyone, including Ruth, the woman he has had an affair with for twenty years.

Other familiar characters are back too; even the dead eighth grade teacher, Miss Beryl Peoples, haunts the narrative with her remembered words of advice and her gift to Sully.  Sully inherited her house, sold his father’s old house to the city, and finally won the trifecta; he has money now and does not have to work.  Rub is back in double; the stuttering mentally challenged sidekick to Sully, and Sully’s dog – also called Rub.

On the day Raymer’s wife decided to leave him, she accidentally slipped on a loose rug, fell down the stairs “(like a Slinky”) and died next to the packed suitcases at the foot of the stairs.  Raymer found a garage door opener among her effects and assumes it opens the door to his wife’s lover.  He fondles the device in his pocket as he plans his investigation to discover which door it opens.  Russo creates one of many humorous incidents when Raymer faints, falls into an open grave, and drops the door opener.  When he awakens later in the hospital, he realizes it has been buried with the body, and his hopes for identifying the lover are dashed.

Nevertheless, his determined quest goes on, and Raymor’s actions provide some  humorous incidents in the book, from digging up the judge’s grave for the garage door opener to getting struck by lightning.   The last chapters are the funniest as Raymor channels his alter ego Dougie, a product of the lightning strike.    In the end, Russo finally allows Raymor to come out of his ineptitude and become the man Miss Beryl knew he could be. He picks up an angry cobra and puts it back into its box, finds the victim of a hit and run in time to save him, and tracks down the driver, who gets his just reward, Russo style.  And he finally identifies his wife’s lover in a surprising twist.

Most of Russo’s characters are benign but Roy Purdy, who appeared briefly in Nobody’s Fool, when he used his rifle butt to break the jaw of his ex-wife, Janey, is a true villain. Roy went to prison, but he’s out and back in town with a vengeance in Everybody’s Fool.  Russo allows the reader inside Purdy’s scary head, as he plots, abuses, and maims his wife and mother-in-law. Purdy is a downright evil character, and redemption is sweet when he gets his due.

In the end, Sully decides to have that heart operation at the VA hospital, so he is available for future Russo sequels.  Raymor finds new confidence and a new love.  And life in North Bath continues on.  Who knows – we readers might get to visit the neighborhood again sometime.  In his review of the book for the New York Times, T. C. Boyle said:

“Bath is real, Sully is real, and so is Hattie’s and the White Horse Tavern and Miss Peoples’s house on Main, and I can only hope we haven’t seen the last of them. I’d love to see what Sully’s going to be up to at 80.”

I wonder too.





Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

9780679753339_p0_v2_s192x300  0883929313983_p0_v5_s192x300   9780307270641_p0_v1_s118x184  To prepare for Richard Russo’s return to North Bath after twenty years in the upcoming publication of Everybody’s Fool, I wanted to review its inception in his 1993 novel, Nobody’s Fool.  The most painless and enjoyable way to do that was to watch Paul Newman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jessica Tandy in the Oscar-nominated movie version of the book.

Before watching the movie, I read Daniel B. Roberts  comparison in his article Nobody’s Fool, book vs movie, and was reassured that Paul Newman was the embodiment of Sully Sullivan.  The excerpt he cited reminded me of the theme of free will vs predestination I had mulled over when reading the book years ago.

“Sully shook his head, feeling much of the same frustration he’d felt two days ago listening to Cass, who’d explained to him her lack of options with regard to her mother. Here was Wirf telling him the same thing, that he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Maybe Sully’s young philosophy professor at the college had been right. Maybe free will was just something you thought you had. Maybe Sully’s sitting there trying to figure out what he should do next was silly. Maybe there was no way out of this latest fix he’d gotten himself into. Maybe even the trump card he’d been saving, or imagined he was saving, wasn’t in his hand at all. Maybe his father’s house already belonged to the town of Bath or the state of New York. Maybe Carl Roebuck had bought it at auction for back taxes… Maybe even Carl Roebuck didn’t have any choices. Maybe it just wasn’t in him to be thankful for having money and a big house and the prettiest woman in town for his very own. Maybe he was just programmed to wander around with a perpetual hard-on, oozing charm and winning lotteries. Still, Sully felt the theory to be wrong. It made everything slack. He’d never considered life to be as tight as some people (Vera came to mind for one, Mrs. Harold for another) made it out to be, but it wasn’t that loose either.”

Roberts assured me of the connection of the book to the movie:

“The pacing {in the movie} is especially perfect: for example, the book starts out with a lengthy (admittedly slow) description of the town of Bath. The movie, somehow, respectfully pays homage to Russo’s style by doing the same, but accomplishing in just the three minutes of opening credits the same sort of scene-setting and establishing of the quaint town where this story will take place.”

My May Day mission is clear.  I have found the old movie on Netflix and can squeeze it in before the last episode of The Good Wife.  Then, I will be ready to read Everybody’s Fool – preordered on iBooks to be delivered soon.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Just like Stewart and Colbert, I’m off on vacation.  Yes, although I live in vacation central, I still like to get away.  While gone, I’ve scheduled a few posts to pop up intermittently  – just so you don’t forget me.

For the trip, I’ve stocked up on back issues of The New Yorker and dollar books I can leave like breadcrumbs as I finish each en route:

And books on tape downloaded to my Ipod for bumpy plane rides:

As one friend commented – “that should get me through a couple of days…”