Richard Russo’s “Self-Deception” at the Plaza Library

Despite what he described as a “gullywasher” of a rainstorm yesterday evening, an energetic Richard Russo entertained a crowd of avid fans at the Truman Forum Auditorium in the Kansas City Public Library‘s Plaza Branch. The event was co-sponsored by Rainy Day Books, who provided copies of Russo’s novels for purchase.

Before and after his turn on stage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author signed copies of his books, including his latest, That Old Cape Magic, and chatted with fans.

After Library Director R. Crosby Kemper III introduced Russo as a “great storyteller and ‘professional liar’” (the author’s own words), Russo began a discussion of what he called “the art of self-deception.”

The genesis of That Old Cape Magic grew organically and quite unintentionally, Russo explained, from the exhaustion he felt after completing his previous novel, Bridge of Sighs. That book, he explained, was a rather long and dark examination of the American Dream as the author perceived it through the attitudes of his parents and grandparents.

The first thing I noticed in Russo’s speech was that he doesn’t talk about his own writing the way most writers do – not as you’d expect them to, at least. Rather, Russo’s writing process seems to involve a great deal of discovery. Characters are born on the page and grow in ways that are often surprising to the author. Things happen on the page that Russo hadn’t planned.

Hearing him talk of the main characters in Bridge of Sighs, Lucy Lynch and Bobby Marconi, it sounded as if he had encountered them in real life, fully formed, and had gotten to know them in stages. The same is true of the paths Russo’s stories take – he does not create the twists and turns in his books so much as follow them.

And so, when Sighs was finished, Russo said that he was running on empty. But, he added, “I’m not happy unless I’m writing.”

He determined to write something short: a screenplay (he’s written several), a book review or perhaps a short story. He settled on the story, and soon he was creating – or rather, following – the story of Jack Griffin, a middle-aged, married former screenwriter and professor, driving solo from Boston to Cape Cod to scatter his father’s ashes.

“I noticed something was amiss when he crossed the Sagamore and started humming his parents’ tune,” Russo said. He explained how Griffin’s parents, two miserable Ivy Leaguers exiled to the “Mid-[bleeping]-west,” would sing their own version of “That Old Black Magic” on family vacations to the Cape.

“I should’ve known right then it wasn’t a story,” Russo said.

He read a short passage from Cape Magic, one that introduced the character of Griffin’s mother, a deeply disaffected intellectual with a mean streak whose snarky reproaches ring in Griffin’s head throughout the book, even after her death (that’s not a spoiler).

Russo read his words with relish, getting lots of laughs from the audience, punctuated by a handclap or two. Much in the way that the books of Dickens’ (to whom Russo is often compared) contain rich and diverse communities of odd, lively and deeply sympathetic characters, Russo’s novels swarm with people whose lifelike flaws, eccentricities and blunders arouse affection alongside clucks of the tongue.

Also like Dickens, That Old Cape Magic continues Russo’s tradition of dissecting class struggles – in this case, the division between the self-appointed intellectual elite of academe and ordinary people who play golf, bungle trivia answers and, most of all, are more tightly knit to their family members.

“Stories about smart people behaving stupidly are more interesting than stupid people behaving stupidly,” he explained.

Divorce, mid-life crises and the power of the dead over the living all figure strongly in Cape Magic, resulting in a book that is darkly funny and real, though a bit forced at times. It’s not as epic or masterful as Russo classics like Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer in 2001) or Nobody’s Fool, but it’s a good read and was clearly well-liked by the crowd in attendance last night.

During the Q&A portion of the event, people were eager to ask about Russo’s own family. Russo was open in revealing that his own mother (nothing like the one in the book, fortunately) was dying while he was writing the novel. Also, somewhat like Griffin in the book, Russo was helping to plan weddings for his two daughters. And, like many of the male characters in his books, Russo himself grew up with a largely absent father.

“All the most important people in my life have been women,” he said.

By turns salty and humane, Russo has a keen eye for human foibles and isn’t afraid to allow his characters to show their true colors — men and women alike. While Griffin’s mother is, in her son’s (and the author’s) view “a bitch, really,” Griffin is no saint himself.

In Russo’s world, imperfections are passed from parents to children, planted like seeds that come to full and often ugly fruition later in adulthood. Only the young (such as Jack’s daughter), or those who stay young at heart (the daughter’s Korean suitor, Sunny Kim), remain untarnished.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that Russo loves his characters, warts and all, and even when they do stupid things, redemption is always within reach.

Dickens would approve.


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