Book Bag: ‘Chances Are ...’ by Richard Russo; ‘Chosen Family’ by Tom Weiner

Published: 8/22/2019 8:30:00 AM
Modified: 8/22/2019 8:29:49 AM

“The three old friends arrived on the island in reverse order, from farthest to nearest: Lincoln, a commercial real estate broker, practically cross-country from Las Vegas; Teddy, a small-press publisher, from Syracuse; Mickey, a musician and sound engineer, from nearby Cape Cod.”

Thus begins Richard Russo’s newest novel, “Chances Are” a story that centers on a reunion on Martha’s Vineyard of three old college friends from the Vietnam War era, now in their mid-60s, and their attempt to unravel the abiding mystery of their lives: the disappearance years ago of Jacy Calloway, the coed they were all in love with as students.

In fact, the last time Jacy and the three were together was at this very same beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, on Memorial Day Weekend in 1971, over 40 years earlier. In “Chances Are,” Russo uses that mystery incident to frame a larger story of the three friends, their past and their coming of age, and the mix of nostalgia, regret and reluctant acceptance that now colors their lives.

Lincoln, probably the most successful of the three friends, has weathered the up and downs of the real estate world and is still married to his college sweetheart, Anita, after many years. But he’s also had to deal for years with his tyrannical father, now a grouchy widower. Teddy seems the most fragile: He’s just lost his job as editor of a small, religiously oriented press in upstate New York and is contemplating a future of increasing loneliness, having missed the chance to connect with the one woman who might have changed his life.

Mickey, meantime, is still leading the rock and roll life, wearing a leather jacket as he roars up to the reunion on a motorcycle; he still fronts a local rock band on Cape Cod himself, as if to keep old age at bay.

Russo, who’s been called “our senior correspondent on masculinity,” has built a successful career in books such as “The Risk Pool,” “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool” in writing about men in small towns, especially from working class families and neighborhoods, and their attempts to navigate a changing world.

In “Chances Are,” he’s done it again. As one critic puts it, “No one captures so well the gruff affection of men or the friction between guys from different classes. By some accident of fate, the three men (in the novel) were classmates at a small Connecticut college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. One way or another, they all managed to stay out of the Vietnam War, but the resin of their lives was set in that turbulent era, hardening into the cherished amber of friendship.”

The story toggles back and forth between past and present, recalling the day, for instance, in late 1969 when Mickey got a military draft number that made it seem likely he’d be heading to Vietnam, as well as the day when the teenage Lincoln first sees his beaten-down mother assert herself against her iron-fisted husband. Now back together in Martha’s Vineyard, the three old friends also can’t seem to stop wondering how their lives might have been different if Jacy hadn’t disappeared.

There’s a certain sense of resignation to the novel, but as one reviewer notes, that “cloud of remorse … can be affecting precisely because these old friends have so much difficulty articulating their emotions. Will they be able to open up to whatever the future holds? It’s pretty late in the game, but they’re not quite ready to throw in the towel.”

Richard Russo will read from and sign copies of “Chances Are” on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. To register for this ticketed event (cost is $28.63 plus fees, which includes a copy of the book), which is limited to 125 people, email events@odysseybks.com or visit odysseybks.com.

“Chosen Family: Men’s and Women’s Support Groups” by Tom Weiner

For over 40 years, Northampton author and former Smith Campus School teacher Tom Weiner has been a member of a men’s group that’s been an important part of his life. In his new book, “Chosen Family,” Weiner interviews over two dozen men and women, from two different generations, who have been part of men’s and women’s groups to explore how their lives have been enriched through their participation.

Weiner notes that the men’s groups that began in the later 1970s, and which he was first part of, were inspired by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The realization that so many women had labored under male oppression for so long, he writes, gave “pro-feminist” men’s groups a goal of making men less violent, more supportive and egalitarian with their wives and partners, and better parents.

Also key for these groups, writes Weiner, was that men become more open emotionally, not just with their wives, partners and children, but with each other.

Weiner’s first book, “Called to Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft,” included extensive interviews with people whose lives had been affected, in various ways, by the Vietnam War. For “Chosen Family,” he interviewed 27 men and women, between the ages of 28 and 68, to get their read on how participation in men’s and women’s groups has shaped their lives, self-perception and relationships with others, and how the dynamics can differ between the different generations.

And why call it “Chosen Family”? In an introduction, he notes that the term has been used in the LGBTQ community and can mean that “Friends who become your family of choice may provide you with a healthier family environment than the one in which you were raised … (it) can be part of a person’s growing network, and can help construct a wide foundation of support that continues to grow with time.”

There will be a book launch for “Chosen Family” on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Progression Brewing Company in Northampton.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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