It’s September of 2015, and Lincoln Moser, a 66-year-old commercial realtor living in Las Vegas, is on Martha’s Vineyard to unload the Chilmark house that he inherited from his mother. He doesn’t want to sell, but he and his wife are still smarting from the crash of 2008. Lincoln also has “unfinished business” on the Vineyard, “the precise nature of which continued to elude him, though it seemed to involve his friends.”

Richard Russo Photo by Elena Seibert

These friends are Teddy Novak, an eternally single, enduringly panic-attack-suffering Syracuse-based publisher of a small press, and Mickey Girardi, a twice-divorced, Harley-riding, guitar-playing Cape Codder who opted for Canada over reporting for duty in Vietnam. (In other words, Mickey is a Richard Russo character.) The trio met at the fictional Minerva College, where they bonded as scholarship students who had to sling hash at a sorority to pay their school tab.

Lincoln invites Teddy and Mickey to Chilmark for the weekend – their first gathering in nearly a decade. As reunions go, this one falls short. Acutely felt is the absence of Jacy Calloway, the well-bred but wild – “as wild as the times they were then living through,” as Lincoln puts it – sorority girl who joined them on the Vineyard over Memorial Day weekend in 1971. Their get-together was billed as her last hurrah with her three college buddies (none of whom had the guts to admit that he was besotted with her) before her wedding to a parent-approved fiancé. Lincoln’s unfinished business, he comes to understand, is his need to get to the bottom of Jacy’s disappearance: She went missing after that Memorial Day weekend and has been presumed dead ever since.

Fans of Maine’s own Richard Russo, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his bravura novel “Empire Falls,” shouldn’t be shocked by his foray into mystery with “Chances Are …” The author’s fondness for tales of detection was on prominent display in 1998’s noir homage “Twilight,” for which he cowrote the screenplay. But Russo admirers can rest assured that “Chances Are…” provides the satisfactions of the novels for which he’s best known. There’s the classic Russo tussle between small-town serenity and his characters’ disequilibrium, dialogue so effortless-seeming that it’s easy to overlook the skill that went into chiseling it, and the long-suppressed disclosures and hard-won revelations of getting-on-in-years male protagonists.

Like many of Russo’s guys, the male leads in “Chances Are…,” which supplies each man’s perspective, are unsure of how much they can let chance – a low draft-lottery number or some other piece of bad luck – absolve them of their shortcomings, especially when it comes to women. It has taken a retired Vineyard cop, whom Lincoln questions about Jacy’s disappearance, a lifetime to conclude that men have been going about it all wrong: “We don’t do right by girls. … Us. You and me. Men in general. We close ranks, every one of us. … We shouldn’t, but that’s what we do.” What Russo does? He takes the pulse of a uniquely American place and time and reports on it with empathic side-eye, slinging salty humor like so much hash.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and co-author of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.”


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