Chances Are . . .: A Novel
“Chances Are . . . takes chances none of Russo’s previous novels take, but also revisits many of the themes of his earlier books—fathers and sons, friendships among generally uncommunicative men, childhood crushes that last a lifetime, the ways the lives we live breed disappointment in ourselves and those who care enough to believe we can be (or could have been) more than we became, and the ability to see the humor that makes it possible to forgive and live with it all.”
With a handful of highly successful, strong sense-of-place novels published in the 1990s, Richard Russo and Dennis Lehane defined two very different breeds of contemporary working class novels anchored in the northeastern United States. While Russo staked his claim to the diners and dive bars of dying New York milltowns, Lehane plied his trade in the crime-ridden streets of Dorchester and South Boston.
Though both authors created indelible down-and-outers invested with unmistakable humanity, the similarities largely end there. Lehane was essentially a crime novelist until The Given Day (2008); Russo has always been a literary novelist, although in the early years many highbrow types found his novels too funny for their own good. (Russo has a great essay about the presumed incompatibility of seriousness and humor in his 2018 collection, The Destiny Thief.)
Lehane’s books always included their share of sharp-witted, wise-cracking dialogue, but never delivered the sort of gut-busting situational comedy that emerged as Russo’s stock in trade. And, of course, Russo’s books never packed the suspense, hard-boiled violence, or meted-out mystery that won Lehane a Shamus award for his brilliant first novel, A Drink Before the War.
In short, even though you could imagine one of Russo’s characters bellying up to the wrong bar and landing unexpectedly in a Dennis Lehane novel, or Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro chasing down a lead in a run-down neighborhood in Russo’s Mohawk or North Bath, you couldn’t really see Russo writing a Lehane novel or vice versa.
With truly great writers like Lehane and Russo, boundaries between genre and other arbitrary distinctions blur over time and simply give way to great writing. Although Chances Are . . . , Richard Russo’s deeply absorbing and often achingly sad new book, is not crime fiction per se, the cold case of a young woman gone missing 44 years before the book begins brings Russo much closer to Dennis Lehane territory than one might have ever expected him to go. Russo proves himself more than capable of sustaining the sort of taut suspense such a story demands.
Chances Are . . . tells the story of Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey, three 66-year-old men whose paths first crossed in the late 1960s at a small liberal arts college in coastal Connecticut where the trio took work-study jobs in food service at a sorority house. The three boys’ “Hasher” status set them apart from the girls of the Theta house, few if any of whom had come to Minerva College on financial aid as they had.
Lincoln, now a commercial real estate broker in Las Vegas; Teddy, editor of a small academic press; and Mickey, a musician and sound engineer on Cape Cod, reunite in fall 2015 at Lincoln’s summer cottage on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The last time the three gathered there, Memorial Day, 1971—immediately following their graduation from Minerva College—they were joined by their close friend Jacy Calloway, a captivating, spirited Theta sister from Greenwich with whom all three Hashers had been helplessly in love for the last four years.
Though each of the three Hashers had fantasized about Jacy choosing him over the others, none had ever made a move. Their 1971 gathering found the four friends facing the separation rendered inevitable by graduation, but also two far harsher realities: Jacy’s impending marriage to a loathsome Greenwich stiff named Lance (or Vance, or Chance—as you might expect, Russo wrings more wry humor out of the Hashers’ inability to pinpoint his name than any other writer on the planet possibly could)—and low-draft-numbered Mickey’s imminent induction into the military and presumptive deployment to Vietnam.
For Teddy and Jacy, the ostensible purpose of the 1971 gathering was to convince Mickey to break his promise to his late father, hightail it to Canada, and avoid serving in a war that they all found morally unconscionable.
It was also that long ago weekend that Jacy disappeared without a trace, never to be seen or heard from again.
As the much older men return to Martha’s Vineyard in 2015, Jacy, of course, is very much on their minds. Teddy’s compulsion to revisit his strongest, most heartbreaking memories of her and that time draws him into perilous personal territory, as well as one of the book’s most comic episodes.
Lincoln’s determination to solve the mystery of Jacy’s disappearance brings him into contact with Coffin, a hard-drinking, menacing retired Massachusetts cop straight out of a Dennis Lehane novel. Coffin has no inhibitions about sharing his own frightening and unsettlingly convincing theories about what happened to Jacy and who is implicated in them.
Chances Are . . . takes chances none of Russo’s previous novels take, but also revisits many of the themes of his earlier books—fathers and sons, friendships among generally uncommunicative men, childhood crushes that last a lifetime, the ways the lives we live breed disappointment in ourselves and those who care enough to believe we can be (or could have been) more than we became, and the ability to see the humor that makes it possible to forgive and live with it all.
It also deals quite forcefully with the impact of Vietnam on Russo’s generation. Rather than portraying the war itself or explicitly or polemically rehashing the political issues surrounding it, Chances Are . . . recognizes the war’s unignorable presence as a determining factor in the lives of the men at the center of the book, even half a century later.
The generation whose birthdays were pulled from a hat in a 1969 draft lottery wasn’t the first to have a hole ripped through it by a faraway war. But unlike World War II—an obvious point of reference for a generation whose fathers mostly fought in it—Vietnam irreparably damaged Americans’ faith in their country’s institutions and its purported mission in the world, and marked the years that followed as surely as the earlier war had done.
In an interview I did with Richard Russo in 2016, shortly before the publication of Everybody’s Fool, the sequel to his breakthrough 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool, Russo talked quite a bit about how reconnecting with Nobody’s Fool’s characters 20 years later meant not only recognizing how their lives had changed in the interim, but also acknowledging the changes in himself. “My children were children when I wrote that book,” he said. “I’m a grandfather now. There’s a lot of water under my particular bridge. I couldn’t pretend to be the younger writer that I was when I wrote that book.”
The younger Richard Russo was a tremendous writer. His second novel, The Risk Pool, would be the crowning achievement of a lifetime for most novelists, and in some respects it might still stand as Russo’s best.
But the younger man who wrote that poignant and rip-roaringly funny novel about fathers and sons, having only recently begun to understand the degree to which the backstory could be the story, could no more have written this paragraph than man 30 years older would have written The Risk Pool: “What [Lincoln] really longed for, he realized, was his generation’s naïve conviction that if the world turned out to be irredeemably corrupt, they could just opt out. Embarrassing when you put it like that, but hadn’t that been the central article of their faith? They’d believed that being right about the war their parents were so stubbornly wrong about meant that they were somehow special, maybe even exceptional. They would change the world. Or at least they’d give its crass inducements, its various bribes and dishonest incentives, a miss. [Lincoln’s father] might be wrong about a lot of things, but neither he nor Lincoln’s mother, nor anyone else in their generation, had been fool enough to imagine you could bail out of the world that made you.”
Richard Russo’s acute understanding of the world that made him, his unflagging empathy for the women and men who made it, and his unerring ear and eye for the sidesplitting humor in at all, nine inimitable novels in, remain his signature gifts.