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Chances Are..., by Richard Russo cover

In Chances Are…, by Richard Russo, three men in their mid-sixties get together at a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve been friends since college, drifting in and out of touch with each other, but what draws them to their private reunion is a woman whom they loved and who disappeared at the end of a weekend the four spent together forty-four years earlier at the same cottage. Their college years — it’s the late sixties in America, conscription looms, and three young men fall in love with a free-spirited and, of course, beautiful young woman — recall the film Four Friends, but Chances Are… charts its own path through this familiar terrain. 

Russo structures his cold-case mystery on conventional lines, though he holds out hope that the missing woman is still alive and unharmed, given that neither her parents nor the police pursued the investigation to its logical end: her three male friends. The timeline jogs back and forth between that fateful weekend forty-four years ago and the story’s now, with the characters’ personal memories providing backstory. Clues drop like a trail of breadcrumbs you’re hungry to follow. There’s a classic ensemble denouement scene. Now and then, a character, most often the love interest, furthers the plot by doing something that the others have to try to explain away. Overall, the pacing, and the conceals and reveals, make the book hard to put down.

What sets Chances Are… apart from an enjoyable suspense read is its portrait of the friendship of three men: Teddy, Lincoln, and Mickey. If the book has a protagonist, it’s Teddy, a man whose keenest joys in life were nipped in the bud, at age sixteen, by a bully-inflicted injury, and who takes, as a result, a philosophical, even monkish, view on life Teddy seems almost more turtle than man, until you get to know him. Lincoln struggles between identifying with his overbearing father and his more refined but submissive mother. He finds that, even as he consciously resists, he can’t help mirroring his father, whom he describes as “a small, domineering man who had little to recommend him besides his absolute conviction that he was right about anything and everything.” Mickey’s own break from his beloved father’s values threatens to break Mickey’s heart, even decades after his father has died. One of the last conversations between father and son was about the draft. Michael, Sr., said, “Your country calls, you answer.” Mickey has never reconciled himself with the fact that his answer to that call didn’t match the promise he made to his father. 

The women tend to be less interesting. Until we’re well into the story, we don’t get much of Jacy, the love interest, other than that she represents the spirit of the men’s youth, vital then, missing now. She’s not so much a person as a ghost of Memorial Day past. But the book isn’t about a woman. Chances Are… explores the dynamic of three men entangled with the same woman, and with their wives, daughters, and mothers, and with their fathers, teachers, and classmates, and with world events, like wars, that zero in on individuals half of a world away. Jacy’s disappearance feeds the plot, but her main job is to hold together three men whose lives have long-since taken very different paths. 

By setting up a reunion of men whose friendship has remained intact even after being hit by the twin wrecking balls of romantic rivalry and distance both professional and geographical, Russo gets down to the bare bones of what friendship is made of, regardless of gender. He does this without idealizing or sentimentalizing, and without a trace of the flat-faced mask of “bro culture.” The friendship shared by Teddy, Lincoln, and Mickey is complicated by secrets, individually and mutually held. They don’t always rise above viewing each other with suspicion, contempt, and envy. They judge and betray. They try to conceal their wounds, but when pressed admit to them. They gossip to each other about each other. Jacy is not the only one missing; in some critical ways, the three men are missing from each other. For example, neither Lincoln nor Teddy knew about Mickey’s two, brief marriages until he was twice divorced. At the cottage reunion, Teddy overhears Mickey, who’s out on the deck, arguing on the phone with a woman he calls Delia. He wonders if Mickey has again married without telling them. He goes out after Mickey’s hung up. 

“Everything okay?” [Teddy asked.]

“More or less,” [Mickey] said. “You know, I figured by the time I was sixty-six I’d have my own dedicated barstool somewhere and be paying for my beer with social security.” 

“You’re not on social security?” 

“I am, but it’s a funny thing. If you don’t put much of anything in, you can’t take much of anything out. Who knew?”

The conversation rambles on a few more beats, without Teddy asking, though he’s burning up with curiosity, nor Mickey telling, who Delia is. By now, we know the three men well enough not to be surprised. 

For all their silences and petty grudges, the men offer each other depths of wisdom and emotion that they didn’t suspect existed in themselves. At the cottage reunion, they witness what they were, or what they thought they were, forty years ago when they were, or thought they were, innocent and free. 

It wasn’t Jacy’s disappearance that cracked their egg of angsty and blissful youth. The draft lottery sorted them out. Used in 1969 to feed the Vietnam War with men between 19 and 25 years old, the first lottery randomly drew birth dates. If your birthday was drawn first, for example, your number was 1. The lower your number, the higher your chances of being conscripted, and once in, chances were you’d be deployed to Vietnam. If you were in the 300s, you were safe. Mutual love for Jacy paradoxically bound the three men; the divergence of their draft lottery numbers isolated them from each other. By chance, they found themselves hurled in different directions. 

Chances Are… is titled after a 1957 Robert Allen and Al Stillman song that gave singer Johnny Mathis his biggest hit, with a significant nod to Bob Seger’s song of the same title. Teddy ironically mirrors the Allen/Stillman song’s tag line, “Chances are your chances are awfully good,” when musing on the injury that stripped so much from him. “Back then, at sixteen, the odds of a full recovery had been very much in his favor. (Chances were his chances were awfully good.) Whereas the results had been…well, awfully bad.” Then he second-thinks it. “And yet, to be fair, he had been lucky, right? Unlucky would have meant a wheelchair for the rest of his life.” He spirals back even to his conception: if his father had been like Mickey’s, he would have known how to stand up to the bully who hurt him.

It’s what Russo’s people  do—they second-think things. They speculate passionately on the causes and effects that lie behind the facades of success and well-being, and of failure and illness. They try to nail things down, defying the slippery, sneaking suspicion that nothing is fixed and certain, not even the past. Maybe that making and remaking is our “God Project,” to quote the title of a colleague’s manuscript that Teddy brings to the cottage to edit. 

For all three men, and for Jacy, too, God usually takes the form of parents, whose values and judgments remain inescapable even as one hits the bumpy road of aging. When a crusty retired cop confesses to Lincoln that in domestic violence incidents, the police tend to save the perpetrator from himself, rather than aid the victim, Lincoln, a Roman Catholic, frames his internal response with his father’s belief in Calvinistic predestination. 

The elect stay elected, the damned, damned. Having once made up his mind, God never wavered in his judgment, which was just fine with Wolfgang Amadeus Mosher [the father], convinced as he was that he’d somehow merited his election and that others had somehow failed a crucial test, possibly in utero. By contrast, Coffin [the cop] seemed exhausted by a lifetime of attempting to alter a foregone conclusion.

Chances are… Russo traps his characters in foregone conclusions and events over which they have no control: heredity, the milieu into which they are born, lucky or unlucky birthdates, accidents and assaults that maim mentally and physically. Yet the title Chances are…., with its ellipses, implies that even if blessings and wounds are inflicted at random, our lives are open-ended, our “God project” more spacious, than the foregone conclusions might seem to allow. 

The premise of the mystery plot in Chances Are… is far from original: a young woman goes missing. That’s all right. Mysteries aren’t expected to originate in startling crimes. The reader is drawn on by the revelation of clues and by the person unraveling them. With his three-headed detective, Russo keeps the pages turning. In the process, he reveals what friends and lovers only of long standing can reveal: the mystery of what’s missing and what remains of us, after life’s chances come together with what we’ve made of those chances.

Chances Are…, by Richard Russo (Knopf, July 2019)  | amazon | indiebound

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