Young men, and love and war

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CHANCES ARE… By Richard Russo. 11 ½ hours. 9 CDs. Read by Fred Sanders. $40. Also available in print from Knopf. 301 pages, $26.95.

Some books are considered “women’s fiction,” a label that does not in itself indicate inferior quality. Many, in fact, are very good. Lee Smith’s “The Last Girls” immediately springs to mind. The term is loosely applied to fiction that focuses on women characters, their lives and emotions.

Richard Russo’s “Chances Are…” is, by those same standards, men’s fiction. That doesn’t mean it’s about sports or hunting or macho pursuits, but rather that this is a novel about men, their lives and emotions.

If something is labeled “women’s fiction,” few men will choose to read it. That’s too bad, both because men are missing out on some fine novels, and because most people can learn a lot by reading books about those who are different from us. 

Women tend to be more willing to read “men’s fiction,” probably in part because for centuries, if they did not, they would have had little to read. 

I hope both women and men will read and enjoy “Chances Are …” It’s well written, with a slowly unraveling mystery to propel Russo’s familiar sense of humor and insights into the human condition.

This is a book that will be especially meaningful for people who came of age in the tumultuous era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Told in alternating points of view, it’s the story of three men who became close friends during their student days at a tony liberal-arts college in Connecticut. Bonded at first by their status as outsiders, they had in common their work as “hashers,” serving food at a sorority house.

Lincoln Moser grew up in Arizona as the only child of a tyrannical, narrow-minded little man who pushed religion, obedience and his notions of manhood. He came to Minerva only because his usually meek mother, a Minerva alum, insisted. 

Teddy Novak grew up in the Midwest with teacher parents who seemed far more interested in each other and their intellectual pursuits than in the child they had produced. They taught him virtually none of the skills he needed to succeed in public school and society in general, and also imparted to him a fear of physical injuries. Tall at an early age, he tried to make it playing high school basketball as he envisioned it – not a contact sport at all. The results were disastrous and permanent.

Mickey Girardi was the youngest and only boy among eight children of a working-class Catholic family in Connecticut. He ended up at Minerva by making almost a perfect score on the SAT, after years of indifferent schoolwork.  All he really wanted was to play in a band.

One of the ties that bind these three young men is Jacy, a sorority girl. They are all madly, not really secretly, in love with her, even though they know her future lies in a different world. Jacy treats them as her best friends, or brothers, or maybe her groupies. 

A pivotal night in all their lives comes in December 1969, midway through their junior year in college, when the numbers are drawn for the Vietnam War’s first draft lottery. 

All these memories return when the three men, now in their late 60s, reunite for a weekend at the house on Martha’s Vineyard that Lincoln had inherited from his mother.

They’ve stayed close in some ways, but their lives have taken widely divergent paths, in career and family life as well as geographically. As they gather on the island, their thoughts are filled with the last time they were here together, on Memorial Day weekend just after their college graduation. Jacy was with them then, even though she was engaged to marry someone else.

And the last morning of that long ago weekend, Jacy vanished. Forever.

But she’s never really left any of them.

Being back on the island together brings her to the forefront of their minds, setting into motion events that, before this weekend is over, will finally bring some answers.

Along with thoughts of Jacy, all three are haunted now by how their lives have played out and by the choices they made because of the war and the draft. They are also increasingly aware of how they reacted to the ideas of what it means to be a man that were imparted to them – or not imparted – by their fathers.

Whether you read the book or listen to the fine audio version read by Fred Sanders, the stories will haunt you, too – the stories of these four once-young people, full of hope and possibilities, and the broader story of a generation that came of age under the dark cloud of a terrible war.

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