“Chances Are …” is Richard Russo’s first stand-alone novel in a decade. It also makes use of a literary form that is rarely found among the author’s works. However, it still spills over with the humanity that is the cornerstone of Russo’s work, even as it reminds us, as he most frequently does, of people’s persistent follies as they search for wisdom, for understanding.
Russo’s works are rare finds. “Nobody’s Fool”and its sequel, “Everybody’s Fool,” are both touching character studies of and paeans to the nobility of blue-color life. “Straight Man” is still one of the best novels about American university life ever written. “Empire Falls” is a brilliant novel about the social strata of a small New England town on the brink of financial ruin; it is his Pulitzer Prize winner.
“Chances Are …” begins pretty much at its end. Forty-four years after they were last together, three old college buddies reunite at Chilmark House, a small cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. They are each 66 years old.
Lincoln Moser inherited Chilmark House from his mother, who subsidized her son’s tuition at Minerva College, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut, with seasonal rentals of the cottage. Lincoln is presently a commercial real-estate broker in Las Vegas.
Teddy Novak is the son of “two harried high-school English teachers” from the Midwest. He now lives in Syracuse and is a small press publisher specializing in “theology aimed at the layman.”
Mickey Girardi grew up the youngest child and only boy from a working-class Connecticut family. He is a working musician currently living in Cape Cod.
All three first come together at Minerva College, “where they’d sling hash at a campus sorority. The other hashers, mostly frat boys, claimed to be there by choice, because so many of the Thetas were hot, whereas Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey were scholarship students doing the job out of varying degrees of economic necessity.”
That’s where they meet Jacy Calloway, the enchanting Theta who quickly bonds with them under the Musketeer credo of “All for one and one for all.” During undergraduate school, their lives become inexorably linked, especially that Memorial Day weekend at Chilmark House in 1971. Then Jacy disappears.
“Chances Are …” is structured as a mystery-of-sorts. As such, it is a compelling and satisfying read as the answers to Jacy’s disappearance are revealed.
One of the strengths of the novel lies in Richard Russo’s generous examination of a restive generation’s very moving attempts to understand its actual role as young people just beginning their lives in the 1970s, and as old people now looking back over their lives in 2015.
Along the way, Russo’s writing remains vivid, graceful and wise. He quickly invites us in, making us as comfortable as he can while he shows us the worst and the best of modern life.
But the novel’s real strength lies in Russo’s response to — indictment of, really — the fallacy in what Lincoln still longs for as truth: “his generation’s naïve conviction that if the world turns out to be irredeemably corrupt, they could just opt out.”
Lincoln and Teddy and Mickey might have believed that their chances were, as the song told them, “awfully good.” Yet “Chances Are …” becomes unequivocally about the tension between believing something and knowing it, about whether we will ever want to “unlearn” what we come to know — about what Lincoln movingly calls “the gap between what people wanted to believe and what they feared must be true.”
Richard Russo comes as close to the truths of modern living as any contemporary writer gets.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.