Culture and history are rife with stories about bros in love with the same girl (e.g., Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall, the Yugoslavian film Hey Babu Riba, and the real-life rock-star triangle of George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Patti Boyd—not to mention Jules and Jim), stories in which the young woman at the center is so magical and alluring that even the enduring bonds of male friendship can’t break her gravitational pull. The result is a circle jerk of competition, brotherhood, and longing that seemingly goes on forever.
In Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo’s Chances Are…, three 66-year-old BFFs—Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey—are back on Martha’s Vineyard together for a boys’ weekend of sorts, staying at Lincoln’s family home, where around 44 years before they spent a few days after college graduation with Jacy, the girl who stole all their hearts. At Minerva, a moneyed New England liberal-arts college, the boys were “hashers” working their way through school in the kitchen of the snooty sorority where Jacy, a spirited, principled hippie from Greenwich, Connecticut, lived and tortured them with her beauty and her faraway fiancé. The four were inseparable before that fateful weekend, when Jacy disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
Now the boys are back in town, each with his own secret history in tow. Lincoln, a family man and successful real-estate agent in Las Vegas until the crash of 2008, is on the Vineyard to sell his house because he needs the dough, something he keeps from his buddies. Teddy, an editor at a small press, has suffered through a quiet existence of unexplained loneliness and celibacy. Only Mickey, a draft dodger who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, is seemingly living his dream: an aging rock ’n’ roller, he still plays music for a living and arrives at the house on his motorcycle, same as he ever was.
Chances Are… is compulsively readable, and it is easy to understand why Russo has legions of literary fans. In a forward-and-backward chronology told largely from Lincoln’s and Teddy’s points of view, he explores the psychological backstory and raw emotional side of men, psychologically and emotionally; that is, with depth and heart. Russo is also dryly funny and observant. When Mickey sees Teddy for the first time in years, he says, “You’re not wearing socks with your sandals … ” “You thought I would be?” Teddy replies. “I figured this could be the year,” says Mickey. The entire relationship is there, the affection, the competition, the intimacy, and the inevitable assholic-ness that accompanies all that competition and intimacy.
Russo is nothing if not naturalistic in his descriptive powers, and the “townie” side of the Vineyard off season—the bars, the real-estate agents, the ancient grudges and gripes—is revealed in a way that imparts just meaning to what could be considered ordinary lives, because when you scratch the surface, Russo seems to say, there really are no ordinary lives. But he’s also got a sort of thriller, or at least an enigmatic plot, to deal with. Jacy and her disappearance hover over the story of these three men looking down the road to their last chapters, adding mystery and frustration to a novel that seems strangely unconcerned about why, after she left a good-bye note that weekend, no one, not family, fiancé, nor her best friends, now middle-aged men who are still in love with her, has heard from her again. Is she dead? Alive? Where? How? Russo’s guys have effectively shrugged at these questions for years.
When you scratch the surface, Russo seems to say, there really are no ordinary lives.
And then suddenly, toward the end of the novel, in a waterfall of detail and information we could not have possibly gleaned from the previous pages, come all the answers, some interesting, some so rushed and out of left field the details pile up like a car crash. The satisfaction of having almost figured it out is taken from the reader. Acceptance, support, and love unite these guys, instead of the anger and feelings of betrayal that would have haunted my own hard heart. Theirs is a lucky-dog friendship I wish upon us all.
Helen Schulman is a writer and professor living in New York City. She is the author of several novels, including This Beautiful Life and, most recently, Come with Me.