Richard Russo, a Vietnam War generation (he turned 70 last summer) literary lion, is best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, and for Nobody’s Fool, both of which became HBO miniseries. I thought those books were great, but my favorite Russo novel is Straight Man (1997), a funny, cleverly written tale told in the voice of an English professor at a small state college in Pennsylvania as he roars through a mid-life crisis from hell.
It appeared that Russo’s latest novel, Chances Are… (Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95), which came out in July last year, had a strong Vietnam War theme. For one thing, Russo dedicated the book to “those whose names are on the wall” (more on that later). Also: The plot follows three Baby Boomer college buddies from the time they watch the first draft lottery in December 1969, to sometime in the recent past when they’re 66 years old and have a reunion in Martha’s Vineyard.
The draft and what the guys did about it pops up intermittently. Mickey, the rock musician, gets a low number, and is drafted. Teddy, the sensitive guy who suffers from “spells” (whatever that is), gets a get-out-of-jail-free high number. Lincoln, the one carrying heavy dominating-father baggage, is in between. Russo tells us what happens to Mickey and Lincoln vis-à-vis the draft, and offers a line here and there about the war, but that’s about it for the book’s Vietnam War component.
We have yet to see a great literary treatment of “The Sixties,” and I had hoped Russo might come through in this book. But there is no Sixties literary magic here. With only a hint of the wit, great wordplay, and creative story-telling in his best fiction, Russo offers up a tepid tale of four decades of three nothing-burger guys dealing with family, female, financial, health, and mental problems. Are you yawning yet?
Russo embeds a mystery into the tale: what became of Jacy, a wild young woman who palled around with the three buddies, all of whom were, as one says, “head over heels in love” with her. However, none of the guys—well, no plot spoilers here. After learning about Jacy’s horrid home life and the slings and arrows of her engagement to a bland preppie, we wade through a giant red herring until all is revealed in the end.
Most of the critics liked the book. The main negative was that the female characters were shallowly developed. Not one review I read mentioned Russo’s almost constant use of clichés. We get Jacy, for example, not being able to “get the hang of it,” then “burst into tears.” Later, she “cried her heart out” after putting her fiancé on “an emotional roller coaster.” And then there’s Lincoln’s father looking “hale and hearty” and “full of his usual piss and vinegar.”
Russo, it appears, failed to heed that tried-and-true literary advice: Avoid clichés like the plague.
As for the dedication—to “those whose names are on the wall”—I kept waiting for its meaning to reveal itself. Finally, near the end, Mickey tells his buddies about the time he paid a visit to The Wall where he scanned “down the rows of names, section after section,” and realized he was “looking for the guy who died in my place.”