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Russo visits the Cape

The novel has its moments, but the Pulitzer winner has done better.

That Old Cape Magic
nolead ends nolead begins A Novel
nolead ends nolead begins By Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf. 261 pp. $25.95

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That Old Cape Magic is a beach read for a bummer of a summer.

Richard Russo's seventh novel is bookended by two New England weddings, both attended by protagonist/narrator Jack Griffin and his wife, Joy, though they go to one together and one separately.

The weddings themselves go off fine - that is, if you don't count the incident in which Griffin's wheelchair-bound father-in-law falls off a ramp into a garden hedge, setting off a chain reaction that leads to a mass visit to the emergency room the night of a rehearsal dinner.

But the marriages under inspection between the two lovely ceremonies don't fare so well in the latest from the author who won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls (2001) and two years ago gave us Bridge of Sighs.

Early on, a harbinger of bad karma lands on the shirt sleeve of Griffin, a screenwriter turned screenwriting professor, on the Sagamore bridge as he stops during his drive to Cape Cod.

That Old Cape Magic takes its title from a Griffin family rewrite of "That Old Black Magic," the theme song for long-ago summer vacations his Ivy League-educated parents took in New England to alleviate the bitterness they felt at winding up as English professors at a middling state university in Indiana.

That song plays in his head as he heads back to the Cape to scatter in the sea the ashes of his late father. Griffin interrupts the journey to take a phone call from his omnipresent, always unpleasant mother, a cold-eyed creature who tells her about-to-be-wed granddaughter that "marriage is combat. Somebody hurts, somebody gets hurt. One does, the other gets done to."

And while Jack is talking to his mother, a seagull defecates on him.

From there, things get increasingly messy and unhappy, largely because of the self-pitying nature of our hero, a bright but rather dense individual whose wife is named Joy but whose life is largely devoid of such. As his own marriage hits the rocks, Griffin ever so slowly comes to the painful realization that his parents' deeply unhealthy union has been the controlling factor in his life.

And though both of Griffin's parents are dead before the early parts of the book are over, they never really go away, making themselves felt on the phone, in memory, or in the case of his mother, as a voice inside Griffin's head that will not let him be.

In comparison to his mother, Griffin's father is merely pathetic, a philandering egoist with a weakness for pretty grad students. His kindheartedness is counterbalanced by a pathological tentativeness that comes across in a signature gesture of "standing in the center of a room, unsure of his next step."

There are some excellent comic set pieces in That Old Cape Magic - like the one where a spoiled tyke punches the groom below the belt during a pre-wedding volleyball game. Or the scene where Griffin attempts, and naturally, fails, to empty his father's ashes into the cold Atlantic and winds up getting battered by the turbulent surf and scrambling to recover the urn he can't manage to open.

The novel includes a story within the story that does create a bit of real Cape magic. It's a chapter called "The Summer of the Brownings," a recollection of a childhood friendship from one of those long-ago Cape holidays that Griffin means to turn into a work of literature that will qualify as the serious endeavor he's (untruthfully) told his wife he has always had the ambition to undertake.

The awkward and angst-infused re-creation of adolescent longing and confusion places Russo back on the firm footing so evident in the novels of small-town Upstate New York with which he made his name, including my personal Russo favorite, the 1988 coming-of-age tale The Risk Pool.

But Griffin eventually comes to realize that in his first "Brownings" draft, intended to be about his fictionalized self's relationship with a family staying in a rental across the way on the Cape one crucial summer, two characters overshadow all others.

Yep, his parents.

And as it is with the early version of the story within the story, so it is with That Old Cape Magic as a whole.

Russo often writes beautifully, but in Griffin he's created a less than likable protagonist painfully slow to figure out readily apparent life lessons. (Next time Mom calls, let it go straight to voice mail.)

Griffin's narrative voice wears out its welcome long before he comes to realize he has a shot at redemption, and prevents That Old Cape Magic from pulling a literary rabbit out of the hat.