By Richard Russo
To Americans of a certain age, it’s a lot more than a “Jeopardy!” question: What happened on the night of Dec. 1, 1969? If you know the answer, you’re in the target audience for Richard Russo’s new novel about the reminiscences and regrets of three aging male baby boomers, former college roommates who watched the nation’s first draft lottery in the kitchen of the sorority house where they toiled as lowly “hashers.” Got a high number? You’re golden: Carry on with your life. Low number? Start preparing for Vietnam — or Canada. Either way, the war was “their war, whether or not they served.”
More than four decades later, meeting up on a fall weekend in 2015, Russo’s characters are still second-guessing the decisions they made in the aftermath of the lottery. Are they content with the people they’ve become? Would Jacy, the wealthy young woman they were in love with back then, who treated them more like mascots than serious dating prospects, take note of their white hair, acid reflux and bad backs, and dismiss them as “three goddamn old men”? That may be an unanswerable question, given that this reunion is taking place at the cottage on Martha’s Vineyard where they were all last together, just after graduation on the Memorial Day weekend when Jacy suddenly took off, never to be heard from again.
“Chances Are…” unfolds as a mystery, with theories about Jacy’s possible murder rippling out to ensnare a loutish local man and a disgruntled ex-cop and his reporter daughter-in-law before washing back onto the three friends who might not know one another as well as they thought. The suspense may carry you through the first half of the novel, but what works better is Russo’s depiction of his central characters, with their father issues and insecurities about class and money, their ingrained cluelessness about women and their need to present a certain image to the world, even if they’re pretty sure the world couldn’t care less.
Lincoln Moser, owner of the house (at least for the time being) and organizer of the weekend, is a happily married but financially teetering Las Vegas real estate broker. He was a legacy student at the tony Connecticut liberal arts college his mother attended before decamping to Arizona and marrying his father. As an only child, Lincoln was raised under a strict Republican regime dominated by the church, the country club and the firm belief that children don’t argue with parents. (“‘Give peace a chance to what?’ his father liked to ask.”) Needless to say, Minerva College was a revelation to a teenager like Lincoln, but as the years have passed, certain nagging doubts have surfaced: Has he become rather unnervingly like his old man?