Something I read about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury has always stuck with me. Faulkner said the novel began with an image in his head that he couldn’t get rid of. I don’t know for sure if that’s what happened with Richard Russo and Chances Are…, but if it did, I have a pretty good idea what that image was.
On December 1, 1969 the U.S. conducted a draft lottery for the faltering and unpopular Vietnam War. The draft went by birthdate, the earlier yours was drawn the more likely you would be called up to serve. In Russo’s novel the proceedings are watched with vested interest by the students who comprise the kitchen and dining room staff at the Theta house on the campus of Minerva University. With something akin to gallows’ humor the young men, fresh off a shift serving food to their over-privileged classmates, watch as a large part of their future is determined for them on national TV. Seated with their co-workers are Russo’s three main characters, who will go on to be lifelong friends in spite of the differing outcomes the draft and life have in store for them.
Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey each took unusual paths to the prestigious (and fictional) Minerva University. For Lincoln, getting her son a pricey East Coast education was the one time his passive mother refused to back down to his domineering father, an Arizona mine owner. As the son of two English teachers, Teddy was destined for higher education, but chooses Minerva to get away from his aloof, uncaring parents. Whereas Mickey seemed destined to follow his father into a lifetime of blue-collar work until he shocks everyone, including himself, by acing the SAT.
When the draft results threaten to send the three best friends on wildly divergent paths, with one certain to be drafted, one certain not to be, and the third in limbo, they try to focus on getting through graduation and a last hurrah trip to Martha’s Vineyard. Accompanying the Three Musketeers is their female d’Artagnan, Jacy Calloway, whom all three friends are in love with even though she’s engaged to someone else.
Forty-four years after that fateful weekend the three men, now dealing with the complications and pains of old age, reunite on the Vineyard for something like a last hurrah. After some losses due to the Great Recession, Lincoln has decided to sell his mother’s place. But there is other unfinished business for the three friends to attend to.
At the end of that long ago weekend, when already the world which had seemed so open and full of limitless possibilities was starting to close in on them, Jacy Calloway stepped on a ferry back to the mainland and seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.
In alternating chapters Russo examines the lives of his three protagonists before and after Jacy’s disappearance. He chronicles how life has often thwarted them and always surprised them. Mickey’s still playing the rock and roll he loves so much, but the lifestyle of a wannabe rock star has taken its toll on his health. Teddy’s monastic isolation has limited his ability to get close to new people and kept him from experiencing true passion. And Lincoln, married with six kids and a successful real estate developer, still manages to wonder if he’s made the right choices in life. Partly because he can’t help wonder what might have been different if a certain girl hadn’t walked out of his life.
Russo is on comfortable ground here, as he is the pre-eminent writer of well-meaning but occasionally oblivious men today. However, the plot machinations deployed in this narrative wind up hurting the novel. Ultimately, the whole endeavor rests on the unlikeliest types of miscommunication. It’s almost impossible to take the resolution of the story seriously. It defies belief. Though the prose is controlled and lively and the characters admirably well-drawn, the ending retroactively colors all that came before in an unflattering shade. As a long-time fan of Russo’s work, this feels like a late-period misfire.