Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were recent college grads when they partied together on Martha’s Vineyard in 1971. Now, decades later, they’ve returned for what’s meant to be a weekend of low-key seaside fun.

Born at the end of the 1940s, the main characters of Richard Russo’s new novel are still adjusting to senior-citizenship. Each has his own health and financial concerns, and their reunion ought to be a stress reliever. But as they arrive on the Massachusetts island, all Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey can think about is their absent classmate. What became of Jacy? It’s a question that haunts each man.

In “Chances Are … ” Russo has crafted a twisty novel about lies, secrets and a missing friend’s “ghostly presence.” If not as sprawling as his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Empire Falls” or as wry as his campus comedy “Straight Man,” his latest is often satisfying, a brisk story with memorable characters and smart things to say about loss and missed opportunities.

For the far-flung pals — Lincoln sells houses in Nevada, Teddy’s a New York editor and Mickey’s a Massachusetts musician — the 2015 get-together is their first in almost 10 years. They have some drinks, play it cool, but inevitably the conversation turns to Jacy, who joined them on Martha’s Vineyard 44 years ago. With Mickey apparently bound for Vietnam, that trip was an effort to briefly forget the war. Alas, everything went wrong. First came a fistfight with a sleazy neighbor. The next morning, the men rose to find that Jacy had vanished.

Jacy was as “wild as the wind,” and her friends expected her to resurface soon. When she didn’t, police searched in vain. Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were each secretly in love with Jacy; for them, Russo writes, her disappearance is a reminder that “what you can’t afford to lose is precisely what the world robs you of.”

Two of Russo’s male characters — Lincoln, shaped by a stubborn father and battered by the 2008 financial crisis, and Teddy, battling anxiety attacks and concerned that he’s “destined to live a solitary life” — are complex and believable. Mickey, alas, is more a type than a person, a Harley-riding rocker who isn’t given many good lines.

As Russo’s characters grapple with the book’s central mystery, a second emerges; though this one features an unconvincing revelation, it provides a fuller picture of Jacy, elevating the novel above those that employ the woman-in-peril trope yet neglect to make her a multidimensional character.

“Chances Are … ” is named for a Johnny Mathis tune, but for the book’s protagonists, an iconic rock anthem proves more meaningful. In flashbacks, we see Jacy sing Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” This is apt, for as Russo notes, the song’s opening line — “When the truth is found to be lies” — sounds a lot like what happens in this intriguing novel.

 

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.

Chances Are ...
By: Richard Russo.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 302 pages, $26.95.