Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo makes welcome return with 'Chances Are...'

Steph Cha
Special to USA TODAY
"Chances Are..." by Richard Russo.

Richard Russo is a terrific writer, and "Chances Are…" (Knopf, 320 p., ★★★ out of four)  – his first standalone novel since "That Old Cape Magic" in 2009 – is, in many ways, vintage Russo. It’s a book about straight white male baby boomers with working-class roots grappling with memory, identity and meaning in a small New England town, a micro-genre Russo has singlehandedly kept alive with his undeniable, Pulitzer Prize-winning talent. The prose is assured and frequently lovely, and the characters jump off the page. He writes with a level of compassion and emotional precision that precious few can match.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are old friends who met in the 1960s as undergraduates at a tony Connecticut liberal arts college, where they served as hashers in a sorority house and formed a lifelong bond, calling themselves the Three Musketeers. Now 66-year-old men, they take a weekend trip to Chilmark, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, where Lincoln owns a house – their first reunion in many years. It’s September 2015: The Vietnam War "had been over for decades, except not really, not for men of their age.” The presidential primaries are underway, a Trump sign appearing on the lawn of Lincoln’s neighbor.

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The world has changed, and so have these men. Fate has scattered them, dealing them wildly different hands, and now most of their cards have been played.

There is very little present-day action: The men hang out in Martha’s Vineyard, they drink and wander and talk about the past. They look backward, toward Memorial Day 1971, when they came to Chilmark after their college graduation – the trio and “their beautiful d’Artagnan,” Jacy. All three men were in love with Jacy, and they are haunted by her disappearance from the island that weekend. Now that they’re together again, their secrets tumble out. Lincoln wonders, “Why hadn’t it occurred to him that asking questions about the past might disturb the present, that in the end he might want to unlearn what he’d found out?”

Author Richard Russo.

"Chances Are…" reads like a prestige literary writer’s reluctant take on a mystery novel. But while it seems to go out of its way to be unthrilling, that isn’t the book’s primary flaw. The problem is, in fact, the gone girl: Jacy is a manic pixie dream ghost, an object of desire characterized with shorthand gestures, even when her story takes center stage during the climax of the book. When she appears in flashbacks, she is planting kisses on all three friends to put off a prudish roommate, or stripping off her clothes and leading one of the moony boys into icy water. “We all were in love with her, but what did we really know about her?” poses Teddy. “I’d never met anybody like her before, so I had no frame of reference.” The mystery of Jacy’s vanishing is the engine of the novel, but Jacy is more device than character.

The men, on the other hand, are achingly well-defined. Teddy, a solitary small-press publisher who suppresses manic tendencies by maintaining a “charmless but necessary even keel,” is the kind of unforgettable creation that has made Russo one of America’s most beloved novelists.

"Chances Are…" may not be a perfect book, but there’s heart and beauty on every page.