Judging a male writer's treatment of female characters is tricky business. While some of the great women in fiction (Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina) sprung from male imaginations, there are plenty more fine novels with not-so-great female characters—most of Roth, a lot of Updike, etc. But to call these writers misogynists is inaccurate, since they treat their male characters pretty roughly, too. Their world view is uniformly jaundiced, and no one gets special treatment. The same can't be said of a writer like Richard Russo, whose latest book, That Old Cape Magic, comes out this week. His stock in trade is a sort of fuzzy, golly-gee novel that critics invariably describe as "warm" and "big hearted." Russo's books are like big-pawed puppies, jumping onto your lap and panting in your face, begging you to embrace them just as they purport to embrace all of human kind. One would expect a writer of such celebrated humanism to treat his female characters with as much compassion as his male ones. But Russo simply doesn't. As with other homey writers like Wally Lamb and Kent Haruf, his pretense of magnanimity only extends to readers who carry Y chromosomes.
Russo's novels and stories contain multitudes, yet only two types of women: perfect bitches and perfect angels. Either way, these women are like smooth, shiny ball bearings, their interiors impenetrable and unknowable. None of them seems at all conflicted about who she is or what she wants. Shrew or saint, they are single-minded and laser-focused on their goals, which are either to aid (the angels) or thwart (the bitches) the protagonist in his pursuit of happiness. Russo tidily describes this dichotomy in the story "Monhegan Light," from his collection The Whore's Child. Joyce, the sister-in-law of the main character, Martin, has already been established as the "sort of woman" who believes men "just don't get it." Beth, Martin's new girlfriend, is the sort of woman who "wasn't greatly surprised if you got something wrong, because she understood you, knew you better than you knew yourself, and therefore expected you to be wrong about a lot of things." When Martin is wrong about something, Beth raises an eyebrow in an unspoken "I told you so." Then she smiles, with "a hint of generosity that distinguished her from professional bitches like Joyce. Both might come to the same conclusion—that you didn't get it—but only one of them held it against you." The Whore's Child came out in 2002, and though Russo was apparently aware of his two-track system for his female characters back then, he hasn't fixed it yet.
In That Old Cape Magic, the protagonist, Griffin, is a classic Russo male: unable to get over his childhood (featuring, of course, a domineering mother and feckless father) and act on his own behalf, Griffin fritters and frets, thrashing about in the straitjacket of his inertia. One might argue that sad sacks like Griffin are as flawed as the women in Russo's books; however, for the men of Russo-world, flaws are good things. The more imperfect a male character is, the more he is ultimately rewarded—his book gets published, his wife comes back to him, his nemesis gets his comeuppance. This seems plain unfair, since the women aren't afforded the luxury of conflict or shortcomings. It's the literary equivalent of the relationships in so many romantic comedies and TV sitcoms—call it the Everybody Loves Raymond syndrome. Smart, competent, emotionally mature but still fabulous-looking women act as foils for immature, self-deluded schmucks, then roll their eyes and sigh good-naturedly as they wait for their lesser halves to get with the program. At the end of That Old Cape Magic, as Griffin has the not-groundbreaking epiphany that he loved his parents more than he realized, his long-suffering wife condescendingly assures him, "Of course you did. What do you think I've been trying to tell you?"
The flip side of veneration is resentment, and Russo's books simmer with hostility toward women in general. Empire Falls, Russo's 2001 novel, opens with a prelude describing a clan of men whose lives have been ruined by their wives: one went after his betrothed with a shovel; another regretted not committing suicide and avoiding his unhappy marriage; a third winds up married to a woman he doesn't love, who flaunts her affair with another man. The way Russo tells it, women are bitches, bovine, and dumb (but shrewd); like witches, and their familiars, cats, they have magical powers to summon misfortune on any man who crosses them. These judgments are often expressed in a voice that is hard to locate. In That Old Cape Magic, for example, there is a passage describing Griffin's father's decision to write his (dumb, bovine) fiancée's Ph.D. dissertation for her. "Granted, this was something she should've been able to do for herself, but so what? It could be their secret. She'd be so grateful her frozen p---y would thaw." Aside from the tired characterization of the fiancée as using sex as a bartering tool (a common tactic of Russo's perfect bitches), this passage is troubling because it's impossible to tell who's speaking. Griffin's father's point of view is not expressed anywhere else in the book, so it can't be his voice. Griffin himself couldn't know these details of his father's sex life. It must be the author himself. If Russo turned a similarly unkind eye on all his characters—if just one of his males was similarly withholding and manipulative—it would be less jarring when he describes the fiancée this way. But he doesn't.
Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which was also a bestseller. The fact that he is not just a popular, but critically beloved writer makes reading him all the more confounding, and slightly depressing, as it suggests that for some readers, his depictions of women must feel true. Does Russo really think women lead lives of such joyless, unconflicted determination? Do his readers think that? It's a mystery to me, but, then again, I never got the appeal of Everybody Loves Raymond, either.