Richard Russo is a fine storyteller. He has a Pulitzer Prize for “Empire Falls” to prove it. And his newest novel, “Chances Are… ,” has already hit the bestseller list. In short, there is a lot to love about Russo and the beginning of “Chances Are…” has such ripe potential, but there is a deep bear pit in reading white men of a certain age writing about white men of a certain age. Jump in at your own risk.
Now, I am a white man of a certain age (though younger than Russo and far less accomplished) and love nothing more than letting waves of nostalgia wash over my memories of youth. I prefer to do this with beer. So when Russo sets three very likeable men, all 66, on Martha’s Vineyard for a long weekend to contemplate life and rehash a weekend from their college days, sign me up. Reflecting on days of yore while trying to capture the end of life with its lost memories and lost loves is what made John Updike brilliant. But Russo injects a bit of a mystery into his plot and, for that portion of the book, he goes astray.
When Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey headed to the Vineyard after graduation from their New England private college they invited their friend Jacy, who they all loved. Why did they all love Jacy, who was engaged to a Duke lawyer type, with such abandon? On that front, we don’t get much of an answer. There is an assumption that Jacy, like all her sorority sisters, is strikingly attractive but we’re told repeatedly she’s also different than all her sorority sisters. And at one point, she gets one of the buddies to commit his life to her, and maybe skip out on his Vietnam commitment by simply taking off her top. So we know she has a bosom and it must be pretty spectacular. Beyond that, their collective loyalty to Jacy is a bit of a question, especially after she vanished from their lives and from the earth after that weekend. Enter mystery thread.
All three men sense Jacy’s absence when they reconvene on the island, but Lincoln takes it a step further and tries to go back and find clues that might explain her disappearance. He finds an old police detective and their conversation leads Lincoln to question whether or not he really knows his lifelong friends and if Jacy ever left the island.
Chances are that many readers will overlook Jacy’s lack of substance and welcome the old grizzled policeman and the manufactured suspense that follows, but many of those readers are likely going to be white men of a certain age.