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October 15, 2013

“That Old Cape Magic”

by Anne Paddock

A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation.

58-year old,  Jack Griffin is a grumpy former screenwriter turned college professor who “has been trying for a long time to understand and resolve his almost pathological resentment towards his deceased parents.” The only child of two Ivy-League educated parents who spent their lives teaching at a college in the “mid-fucking-west,” Griffin has spent his entire life trying to get away from his parents to no avail. They occupy his thought process and influence his opinions even though they’ve been reduced to ashes in urns stored in the trunk of his car.

51swXRi8UpLMarried for 34 years to Joy, a woman whose “natural inclination was towards contentment,” Griffin is also struggling to come to terms with the aging process. A well-regarded screenwriter in his 30’s and 40’s, Griffin and his family left LA and the movie business to move east where he could teach and have more time to write. As he approaches 60, Griffin pines for what was but realizes there is no going back because “late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”

That Old Cape Magic begins with Griffin driving to Cape Cod to attend the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. As he crosses the Sagamore, childhood memories of summers spent in Cape Cod flood back and he finds himself singing the hit song That Old Black Magic but substituting the word Cape for Black, as his parents used to do. As a child, Griffin spent every summer at the Cape but mostly in rundown rental cottages that his parents could barely afford. Still, the Cape represented an escape from a world they never expected to inhabit given the promise of their youth and education.

Written by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic is the story of a man struggling to free himself of a mental stronghold that his parents seem to have over him. It takes a long time for Griffin to realize “the problem seemed to be that you could put a few thousand miles between yourself and your parents, and make clear to them that in doing so you meant to reject their values, but how do you distance yourself from your own inheritance?” Chronically unhappy, Griffin jeopardizes his career, his marriage, and the rest of his life as he stubbornly holds on to isolationism as the answer.

Even as he rejected their values, he’d allowed many of their bedrock assumptions – that happiness was a place you could visit but never own, for instance – to burrow deep. He’d dismissed their snobbery and unearned sense of entitlement, but swallowed whole the rationale on which it had been based…

Often hilarious, That Old Cape Magic is as serious  as it is funny. Griffin, the son of two snobs married Joy, one of five children all of whose names begin with the letter “J” (which Griffin thinks is corny). Joy loves her overbearing, loud, and opinionated family while Griffin detests them. In leaving California for the northeast, he hopes to also escape them but comes to realize this is about as likely as his attempts to rid his own life of his mother and father. Parents, in-laws, marriage, children, career, and aging collide in this story of a man’s journey to come to terms with issues not easily resolved.

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