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story.lead_photo.caption "Chances Are " by Richard Russo (Knopf )

Old white guys are not trending these days, but they get some affection in Richard Russo's irresistible new novel, "Chances Are "

In his ninth novel, Russo (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for "Empire Falls") returns to many of the past themes he has written about with such skill and grace: friendships and family ties, class differences and romantic relationships.

This time the story is built around the longtime friendship of three men, college pals in the late 1960s and early '70s, who reunite 44 years after graduation on Martha's Vineyard.

They gather at a house that Lincoln Moser, a commercial real estate broker in Nevada, inherited from his mother. Teddy Novak runs a small academic press in Syracuse, N.Y.; Mickey Girardi lives in Cape Cod and, age 66 be damned, still makes his living as a rock musician. Lincoln is solidly married to his college sweetheart, Mickey has a couple of divorces under his belt and Teddy has always lived alone.

Lincoln is thinking of selling the house and wants to mark a long-ago weekend the trio spent there just after college graduation with another classmate, a young woman named Jacy Calloway. All three of the men were in love with her, but none of them had the nerve to say so. They shared a boozy, sweet few days that culminated with them singing under the stars, warbling the song that gives the book its title, a lushly romantic 1957 hit by Johnny Mathis that, to a bunch of counterculture kids in 1971, would have seemed gloriously corny.

The next morning, the men found a note from Jacy that could be summarized as "I hate goodbyes, so goodbye." They never saw her again, and neither did her family.

But it was the wild and woolly '70s, when finding yourself sometimes meant losing everyone else, and her three friends seem to have accepted her absence (despite their broken hearts).

None of them really expected Jacy to pick him. She was a beautiful, adventurous child of privilege, born and raised in posh Greenwich, Conn. They all meet at fictional Minerva College, a safety school for kids from wealthy families who can't muster the grades to get into the Ivies.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were not from money. Teddy's parents were high school teachers so wrapped up in their careers and each other that their only son grew up as an afterthought. Mickey was the eighth child of a construction worker and a secretary, an underachieving brawler until his SATs revealed startling academic aptitude. Straight-arrow Lincoln came from a tiny town in Arizona, where his father was part-owner of a little copper mine, making the family small-town rich, which wasn't very. (Lincoln's parents, lonesome Trudy and W.A., known as Dub-Yay, a shrimpy guy with a reedy voice and an oversized ego, are so fascinating I found myself wishing Russo would write a novel about them, too.)

The three boys end up at Minerva because they're academic standouts, but they need jobs. (It was a time when a kid could actually work his way through college.) They meet when they're hired as "hashers" — crew in the kitchen and dining room — at the sorority Jacy belongs to.

That memorable Memorial Day weekend in 1971 was overshadowed by an earlier event: the first military draft lottery in December 1969. Then, like millions of other young men, the three had gathered around a television to watch their futures be shaped. The lottery randomly assigned a number to each day of the year, so that a man's birthday determined the likelihood he would be drafted to serve during the Vietnam War.

For guys without access to rich-boy deferments, a low draft number was life changing, and potentially life ending. Mickey's birthday turns up at No. 9; when (not if) he's called up, he declares, he'll serve, because that's what his father would have done. Lincoln has a number in the mid-100s, and Teddy is safely in the 300s — and equal parts relieved and guilty.

That was then; now it's 2015, early days of the presidential campaign, when Donald Trump's candidacy was still just a punch line. Lincoln invites Teddy and Mickey to the island for what he intends to be a nostalgic farewell to the house — but it turns into something else entirely.

To the surprise of all three friends, the visit becomes an intense effort to determine what happened to Jacy. Mason Troyer, a next-door neighbor whom none of them could stand back in the day, still lives within sight of Lincoln's house and is still a jerk.

After Lincoln talks to a retired police officer on the island, they begin to wonder if Jacy met a more dire fate than they imagined. On that weekend in 1971, Troyer groped her, and Mickey flattened him with a punch. Was Troyer just a lecher or something worse? As Lincoln says, "Basically I wanted him to be a murderer because he's an a_hole, and it doesn't work that way." Or does it?

For a while "Chances Are " turns into a mystery, and a riveting one. But Jacy's fate isn't the only secret, and the novel culminates in a rush of revelations about all of its characters.

Russo's novels always wrestle with the complexities of human relationships, from first love to parenthood to aging, and they're always rich with humor. He's at the top of his fine form in "Chances Are ." Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are flawed and damaged, but Russo treats them with such big-hearted warmth we feel as if we know them, and they're well worth knowing.

 

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