Richard Russo spends much of his first standalone novel in a decade trying to make the cold-case mystery his own. He doesn't quite succeed.

By David Canfield
July 25, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
Knopf

Chances Are...

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Jacy Rockafellow is a Russonian kind of woman: enigmatic, gorgeous, hard-edged, impossible not to fall in love with. Only in Chances Are…, Richard Russo’s first standalone novel in a decade, she also fits into another category — that of the missing girl. The uncertainty of her fate haunts three men who were all infatuated with her 40-odd years ago, and are now returning to the last place they ever saw her, Martha’s Vineyard. She vanished there after graduation, during a Memorial Day weekend getaway. As former college buddies Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey reconvene for a weekend of catching up, they confide in one another, dig up old secrets, and confront the past with fresh eyes.

Russo, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Empire Falls (2001), is one of those authors you’d think would be on autopilot, returning to similar themes and archetypes in his investigation of the white American male, were his books not so consistently nuanced and compulsively readable (including his most recent, Everybody’s Fool). Few dissect painful father-son dynamics and the tensions of small-town life with such intelligence and heart; in Chances Are, these elements anchor the author in rich emotional territory yet again.

But structurally (and, in turn, aesthetically), the novel develops into a masculine melodrama. Until its dud of a climax, Chances Are alternates between the perspectives of Lincoln, now a happily married Las Vegas real estate agent, and Teddy, who suffers from panic attacks and runs a (very) small university press. Along with Mickey (and Jacy), they attended the small liberal arts college of Minerva in the late ‘60s, each coming from dramatically different backgrounds but becoming fast (frat) friends nonetheless. “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 in his prologue’s conclusion. “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.” From a distance, Russo captures Minerva life with a lyrical melancholy; the scene in which students gather to watch the Vietnam War draft lottery on TV and one of our heroes’ birthdays is drawn terrifyingly early resurfaces in flashbacks again and again, as unshakeable to those who lived it as it is to us, reading it.

In general, Russo works better in memory here. When Lincoln reflects on his relationship with his domineering father, or on the significance of selling the Vineyard house his late mother always wanted him to have (and where he, Teddy, and Mickey stay for their reunion), Chances Are settles into a moving rhythm. But for some reason, Russo traps three men he could write in his sleep in a dreary beachside mystery. Lincoln’s chapters are increasingly dictated by the novel’s flimsy construct: feeling out a suspicious (and Trump-loving) neighbor; listening to a retired cop’s theories and ramblings on Jacy’s fate; wandering around the Vineyard Gazette offices for clues to what happened that fateful 1971 Memorial Day weekend. The prose gets downright maudlin. With Lincoln deep in wistful thought, Russo mistakes schmaltz for profundity: “Hey, Jace. Guess what? We’re all here. Teddy. Mick. Me. On the island. Remember the Chilmark house? Our last night together on the deck? How we all linked arms and sang? You’d laugh if you could see us now. Old men, the three of us. Old men haunted by you.

Still, the plot moves. And Teddy fares much better in chapters steeped in wistful regret. The book’s best section jumps back to a magical afternoon by the Gay Head Lighthouse, where Teddy and Jacy had embraced one another in the ocean. “There the water swelled more gently, and he watched her rise on each crest and then lower gracefully into its trough,” Russo writes. “Feeling himself begin to harden, he feared he might weep for pure joy.” Then, reflecting in the present: “So long ago, that euphoria, and so short-lived. And, like life itself, over before it could be fully comprehended. A cheat, really.” It can seem silly, framing so much of a novel around three men’s enduring passion for a woman they haven’t seen in so long, but then Russo justifies his premise in lovely passages like these.

But the story of these men — once inseparable, finally reunited after nearly a decade apart — never quite grips as a throughline, perhaps because Russo doesn’t trust it. The author reminds, constantly, that it was the trio and Jacy, once upon a time. He repeats their motto (“All for one and one for all!”) ad nauseam. He stuffs the lyrics of Johnny Mathis’ “Chances Are” into several too many scenes. He makes half-hearted attempts at introducing red herrings to the case of Jacy’s disappearance. (The neighbor has a criminal record! Mickey is prone to violence!) All this straining, to what effect? Russo can weave a tale as well as anyone, but he shows his work too much here — and the work is clumsy.

Chances Are’s baggy final act takes an intriguing formal shift, only to inelegantly dump 50 pages of information on us. (Russo doesn’t generally plot this way, and you can see why.) Someone other than our two central narrators takes hold of the book, revealing what happened to Jacy. The big unveiling proves desperately lacking. In addition to the general randomness of it all, Russo gives in to the tropes of the missing girl — complete with a backstory of trauma — without giving her a real voice. Jacy’s entire identity is treated like a plot twist. Before divulging her fate, Russo ponders via one character, “They’d all been perfect gentlemen with her. What if it wasn’t a gentleman she’d been looking for?” Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey eventually get their answer. Unfortunately, as with the rest of Chances Are, it doesn’t do Jacy justice.

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