A throwaway moment with a character who appears in a scant three or four pages sums up some of the best things about this book, and about Russo:
Griffin couldn't tell whether the frozen grimace on the man's face [the product of, it seems, a stroke:] represented joy or pain, but decided, arbitrarily, on the former.
Russo's comedy is always pitched to pinch the raw nerve, to reveal (or suggest) deep layers of anguish, despair, irresponsibility, bad choices, ambivalence about the ones you love, self-loathing, and unvanquished unquenched desires. And out of such potential darkness, even when most serious and attentive to that darkness, Russo seems to acknowledge and then turn to the pleasures, comedy, bliss also drawn from such experience. (I half-recall an interview, when someone noted how depressed so many of his characters in the great Risk Pool
were, how Russo muttered that he always thought they were funny.)
This book details a very typical Russovian hero, grappling with the weight of parents (a brilliantly bitter pair of academics) and his own confusion about his love and his friendships and his job. Griffin is a former screenwriter (sort of) now professor (sort of), and the book follows his attendance at two marriages and the troubles in his own.
It is, alas, a bit too schematically structured for me. Janet Maslin in the NY Times
complained that it was too script-ready (and, yes, a small section is written as a script, as Griffin goes over his own approach). I think, rather, it suffers from a tendency all of his novels can have: the overdetermined precision of the narrative arc, coincidence and event neatly etched to hit certain dramatic, emotional beats. But in his best novels--and they are many--his astonishing capacity for character development supersedes, just plain drowns out and washes through such plotting with digressions and endless revelatory dialogue. Here, the book is just brief enough so that you keep thinking about that structure's simplicity, but there are still more than enough wonderful moments and wonderful characters (not least those bilious parents, but also a pair of twin militaristic brothers-in-law, a lovestruck friend of Griffin's daughter, even the four-paragraph entrance of a former-B&B-owner who steals the brief scene she has). A pleasure to read, if a bit slighter in scope and ambition than his best work.