Straight Man

by Richard Russo

Hardcover, 1997




Random House (1997), Edition: 1st


William Henry Devereaux, Jr., spiritually suited to playing left field but forced by a bad hamstring to try first base, is the unlikely chairman of the English department at West Central Pennsylvania University. Over the course of a single convoluted week, he threatens to execute a duck, has his nose slashed by a feminist poet, discovers that his secretary writes better fiction than he does, suspects his wife of having an affair with his dean, and finally confronts his philandering elderly father, the one-time king of American Literary Theory, at an abandoned amusement park. Such is the canvas of Richard Russo'sStraight Man, a novel of surpassing wit, poignancy, and insight. As he established in his previous books --Mohawk,The Risk Pool, andNobody's Fool-- Russo is unique among contemporary authors for his ability to flawlessly capture the soul of the wise guy and the heart of a difficult parent. In Hank Devereaux, Russo has created a hero whose humor and identification with the absurd are mitigated only by his love for his family, friends, and, ultimately, knowledge itself. Unforgettable, compassionate, and laugh-out-loud funny,Straight Mancements Richard Russo's reputation as one of the master storytellers of our time. From the Hardcover edition.… (more)

Media reviews

The New York Times
The narrator of Richard Russo's hilarious fourth novel is a man whom nearly everyone finds exasperating. It is not hard to see why. William Henry Devereaux Jr. can never swallow a quip or a saucy comeback, nor does he try to. Stick a wisenheimer like him in a dour, paranoid college English
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department (has there ever been another kind?) and comedy can practically be guaranteed. But Russo, the author of the novels ''Mohawk,'' ''The Risk Pool'' and ''Nobody's Fool,'' is interested in more than generating laughter, and ''Straight Man'' strikes me as the funniest serious novel I have read since -- well, maybe since ''Portnoy's Complaint.'' Comfortably, if complacently, married, and the father of two grown daughters, Hank Devereaux is a midcareer academic a month shy of his 50th birthday. Like most of his tenured colleagues, he is amazed still to be ensconced at West Central Pennsylvania University, a third-rate state school. ''We have believed, all of us, like Scuffy the Tugboat,'' he says, ''that we were made for better things.'' But while committee work, departmental politics, annual budget cuts, puny raises and ''the increasingly militant ignorance'' of students have soured and embittered his fellow academics, Hank refuses to sing the professorial blues, to participate in feuds, to bed any students or to curry favor with Dickie Pope, the oily and malignant campus executive officer. It does seem possible, though, even likely, that being stuck for so long (two decades and counting) in the stale and dreary town of Railton has made him reckless and a little bit crazy. After all, here is a man -- the interim department chairman, no less -- who will gleefully tease the touchy and extravagantly perfumed faculty poet, then find it entertaining when she hauls off and slams him in the face with a fat notebook, bloodying his nose and hooking his left nostril with the barbed end of the spiral ring. ''People who know me,'' he says, ''refuse to take me seriously.'' Which is just how he wants it. Which is not to suggest that Hank Devereaux does not have his devils. His chief devil happens to be his own father, a philandering ''academic opportunist'' whose books of trendy literary criticism guaranteed him a career of cushy appointments at the best universities. All intellect and no heart, the famous scholar abandoned his wife and young son for the pursuit of academic laurels and the smiles of pretty female graduate students. ''I have inherited from my father most of what I had hoped to avoid,'' Hank muses in one of his many endearing moments of self-deprecation. ''When all is said and done, I'm an English professor, like my father. The most striking difference between him and me is that he's been a successful one.'' At the age of 29, Hank published a novel called ''Off the Road.'' It was respectfully received, but quickly remaindered. He has never started a second one. These days, when he writes at all, he writes satirical columns about university life for the local newspaper. As in Russo's earlier novels, there is a lot of ambling and driving around, and frequent stops along the way. Plot is a minor consideration. Things happen, of course: in a concentrated period of time, less than a week, Hank's ailing father shows up in Railton, and his younger daughter's rocky marriage abruptly ends; Hank is arrested, hospitalized, charged with dereliction of duty and romantically pursued by a colleague's daughter. The novel's greatest pleasures derive not from any blazing impatience to see what happens next, but from pitchperfect dialogue, persuasive characterization and a rich progression of scenes, most of them crackling with an impudent, screwball energy reminiscent of Howard Hawks's movies. (In its most inspired set piece, Hank -- wearing a fake nose and glasses -- appears on local television facetiously threatening to kill a duck a day until he gets a department budget. ''This is a nonnegotiable demand,'' he snarls. ''I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning.'') Hank's perambulations and cumulative misadventures in his town-and-gown world, like that famous Irishman's around Dublin, are fateful ones. Always infusing the comedy are sadness and smothered panic. ''I appear to be a man in trouble,'' Hank finally admits to himself while hunkered in a filthy ceiling crawl space, about to eavesdrop on his convened department mates. It occurs to him that perhaps all of his anarchic Robin Williams-type role playing might actually be a deep-rooted ploy to self-destruct. Russo is a traditionalist when it comes to conclusions. His meandering stories inevitably bring their major players to a new place, or at least to a new vantage on things. Before ''Straight Man'' ends, in an epilogue that jumps us from April to August, Hank Devereaux has run an emotional gantlet, and he has been changed by the experience, though not, of course, changed utterly. He has made a tolerable peace with himself and his predicaments. For Richard Russo's small-town Americans, contentment is always understood as a temporary state, just as exuberant high spirits are recognized as a thin, but useful, disguise for sorrow.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
“In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man.” — Richard Russo, “Straight Man”

Bob Newhart has been an extremely funny comedian for decades, but in all of his situation comedies he was the straight man. The humor came in his reactions to the zany
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behavior of other characters. That's sort of the situation in Richard Russo's 1997 novel “Straight Man.”

William Henry Devereaux Jr., son of a noted literary critic who abandoned his family years ago for a series of sexy students, is himself a professor of literature, temporarily made the department chairman despite his reputation on the faculty for a lack of seriousness. Yet on this faculty he is the Newhart, the one who observes and reacts to the strangeness and silliness going on around him.

Other faculty members are much like him, someone who came to this small Pennsylvania college as a promising young scholar and now realizes his career has nowhere to go. He got his position in the first place on the strength of a first novel, but there has never been a second. He's bored teaching writing to students with little writing talent, but he has tenure. He discovers his secretary, with whom he is half in love (affection for spouses and others is given percentages in this novel) is a better writer than he is.

Devereaux finds himself the department head at a time of threatened budget cuts and the possibility of staff reductions. Other English professors are convinced Devereaux has their names on a list of those to be axed, while the dean pressures him to make such a list. Meanwhile his daughter's marriage reaches a crisis, his wife has gone away on business and he wonders if she will ever return, a handyman is in love with his difficult mother and then his father, now aged and repenting only of misjudging Charles Dickens, returns home.

Russo has a gift for writing hilarious serious novels, and “Straight Man” is one such novel. Its pleasures are many.
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LibraryThing member browner56
There is a great scene at the end of ‘Straight Man’ that really epitomizes a big part of what the novel is all about. A large group of professors at a going away party for one of their colleagues has crowded into a small room and shut the door. Since the door swings inward, however, when it is
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time leave all of the professors rush forward at once, making it impossible to open the door and escape. As Hank Devereaux, the main character in this wonderful satire of modern campus life, explains:

“Clearly, the only solution was for all of us to take one step backward so that the door could be pulled open. By this point a group of plumbers, a group of bricklayers, a group of hookers, a group of chimpanzees would have figured this out. But the room contained, unfortunately, a group of academics, and we couldn’t quite believe what had happened to us.”

Believe it or not, this actually represents a happy (or at least a fitting) ending, given all of the seriocomic events that have preceded it. The story centers on Hank, the acting chairman of an extremely dysfunctional English Department at a mediocre state university that is undergoing deep budget cuts. To make matters worse, Hank is in the throes of a mid-life crisis that has its roots in his strained (to say the least) relationship with his mother and father. Hank’s issues manifest themselves in both mental and physical forms and lead to several truly hilarious passages, including ones where he threatens on camera to kill a duck a day until the budget problems are resolved or crawls into the ceiling above his office to avoid his colleagues and ends up spying on a faculty meeting.

In the hands of a writer less talented than Russo, all of this could feel contrived or even fall flat altogether. ‘Straight Man’, though, is a dead-on treatment of the pure folly that often underlies the politics and relationships—both personal and professional—at a large university. But as humorous as the book is—and it is really, really funny—the author manages to deliver serious messages on themes such aging, loyalty to both family and professional colleagues, confronting one’s past, and suicide. As someone who has worked in higher education for more than thirty years, I make it a point to read as many campus novels as possible. Without question, this one has to be placed near the top of that list.
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LibraryThing member snat
Loved, loved, loved this book. The main character, Hank Devereaux is just a mess, but a likable one. On his academic campus, Hank is the rebel without a cause. He delights in being unpredictible and stirring things up to often hilarious results. However, there's also substance to the novel as Hank,
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who is nearing his 50th birthday, is coming to terms with the passing of youth and with his own mortality. This situation and the insight granted the reader by Hank's first person narrative makes the character believable and we find that Hank's often outrageous behavior may be his only coping mechanism in accepting what his life has become versus what he thought it would be.
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LibraryThing member polutropos
A wonderful book. I laughed out loud repeatedly throughout the first half, and in the second half became more and more convinced by the universality of Hank's suffering. It is a wise book about much more than university campus shenanigans. It is about sons and mothers, sons and fathers, the nature
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of friendship, about who we really are and what we really stand for, about honour under fire. Here is a wonderful mother-son scene:

“The afternoon my mother crept noiselessly down the cellar stairs instead of calling to me as she usually did, I had taken a coil of rope, climbed onto a chair, and tied a knot onto one of the pipes that formed a complex grid running along the ceiling of the cellar. The moment before I turned around and saw her, I had been testing the rope by yanking on it with both hands, to see if the knot would stay tied, if the pipe would hold my weight. To another kid I would have looked like I was about to swing, Tarzan-like, from one imaginary tree to another, but at the moment our eyes met, I knew this was not the conclusion my mother had come to, and I let loose an explosion of violent grief I had not known until that very moment I possessed. How did I get from the chair I was standing on and into her arms? How did I know to go there, know that she would not be angry? There was no way to explain to my mother what I didn’t fully comprehend myself – that I didn’t want my life to end, rather just to know that the pipe would hold me if I needed it to later, if things got worse, if they became unbearable. (322)

Another of my favourite scenes involves his father, guilt, and Dickens. And there are so many wonderful scenes. I have a moratorium on book-buying. This book. overcame it. A library copy is not enough. I bought it.
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LibraryThing member delphica
(#13 in the 2004 Book Challenge)

Embarrassingly enough, I had thought I read this before at my mom's house, but when I was there recently I picked it up and realized I had never finished it. Eek. I do love Richard Russo, Empire Falls is one of the best books I read last year. This one is also very
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good, it takes place at a small college, and concerns the antics of the English department faculty in a time of budget cuts. The narrator is the Interim Department Chair, who threatens to kill a duck a day (from the campus duck pond) until the administration gives him a budget. His writing is so sharp, and the humor is very well conveyed -- it's not quite laugh out loud (it's not that kind of book), but definitely snort out loud.

The thing I don't get is that after reading a few contemporary novels about academia (Moo, The Lecturer's Tale, Wonder Boys, and there was one other one that I forgot), I'm starting to wonder if it is possible to write an excellent book about this environment. They can be very good, but never seem to be excellent. They seem to share a ho-hum quality. They always dip into the same pool of wacky academic characters -- the uptight scholar of feminist criticism, the Dean's secretary who knows more about what's going on than the Dean, the smoking hot grad student who has all the tenured men chasing after her in vain (or not), the over-earnest undergraduate aspiring writer, the administrators who are only looking at the money game, the student protestors who are snarkily blind to the real issues, yadda yadda yadda. Never, in any of these books, have I read anything that makes me say "hey, that's true and I never realized it before" or "I've always thought that but I could never quite articulate it in a way that makes sense until now." One of my qualifications for an excellent novel is that it should contain at least One Essential Truth (I capitalize that in my head when I think it). It doesn't even have to be a particularly lofty or insightful truth, just something that makes me happy because I've read something that strikes me as true in a way that I've previously not encountered. I don't think that the reason that these novels fail to present One Essential Truth is because I'm particularly astute. I'm not even sure it's the failure of the books themselves... I'm starting to worry that it's something specific to Higher Education. It creeps me out a little bit that my own chosen field seems to be utterly devoid of anything remarkable worth writing about.

B+, I'd probably be more generous with this if I wasn't depressed about the subject matter. The writing is, as expected from Mr. Russo, fantastic. I recommend it without reservation to anyone who enjoys realistic contemporary fiction with well-crafted characters and briskly moving plots.

(NB: Four years later, this has held up extremely well and I rate it higher then I did upon first reading.)
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LibraryThing member Jamnjazzz
William Henry Devereaux (Jr.) is certainly is a situation which I find myself facing in the not to distant future. Child gone, nothing left but work and how to find meaning in that. Let's hope I make my way to this point in a better condition that Hank. Henry's efforts to come to grips with his
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situation and make a new one are hilarious, along with his ways of dealing with aging (fling, incontinence) this makes for a charming (from a 50 something male perspective) tale.
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LibraryThing member pugterranian
A week in the life of an English prof at a small "badly under-funded college" in rural PA. One of the funniest novels set in academia that you'll ever read. If you liked Jane Smiley's Moo, Zadie Smith's On Beauty or David Lodge's Changing Places (to pick just one), Straight Man won’'t disappoint.
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I really fell in love with these characters and, like the cliché says, did not want it to end. Expect guffawing out loud with this one so you may want to avoid reading it in public, or next to a sleeping loved one.
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LibraryThing member Zmrzlina
"I'm thinking about doing a special topics course next year, maybe compare a couple of episodes of "Diff'rent Strokes" with "Huckleberry Finn." You know, like, the great American racist novel? Show how white attitudes haven't changed, how the basic fantasy's still intact today? June thinks it's a
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good idea."

"I thought you didn't want them reading books," I say. "Writing being a phallocentric activity and all that." --Richard Russo, "Straight Man" page 144.

Does the above excerpt remind you of people you know, professors you've had, or perhaps yourself? I know when I read this book, I had a list of names, all professors, that I wanted to recommend it to, though I wanted to do it anonymously. Very funny book about life in academia, no...about life in general, but with the added twist of academia and that is a twist that many don't ever taste. Not just for people in the field, for everyone. I did give this book to a professor and he in turn gave me another very funny book which I will locate and write about later.
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LibraryThing member CliffBurns
Magnificent and magnificently FUNNY novel by one of the most gifted writers America has to offer. STRAIGHT MAN is the best of his brilliant canon, a look at the back-stabbing, soul-killing world of academia. The central character finds himself caught in the pincers of competing interests and
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territorial professors with blood in their eyes...some scenes left me literally weak from laughter.

A book to make you fall in love with reading again.

Highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member jennyo
Not counting the movie version of Nobody's Fool, which I saw mainly because it starred Paul Newman and Bruce Willis, my first introduction to Richard Russo's books was his Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls. I loved that book.

I've had Straight Man sitting on my bookshelf for about a year now, and for
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some reason I kept grabbing other books instead. I have no idea why I let it sit for so long. Straight Man, like the other Russo books I've read, is set in a small, depressed, decaying northern town. It's populated mainly with sad sacks and losers, but they're so wonderfully honest and real, and so incredibly witty that you can't help enjoying the time you spend with them.

I probably won't read this book again. I seldom reread books now; there are too many left that I want to read before I die. But I wouldn't mind reading it again. I think it's wise and funny and I think Russo loves his characters. I do too. Now, I'm enthusiastic about reading Nobody's Fool and The Whore's Child which are also sitting in my massive TBR pile.

I'm going to include a rather lengthy quote because I think it'll give you a good feel for Russo's style:

"I see your ma's on the pop-ed page again," Mr. Purty observes. He's a man of few words, a startling percentage of them malapropisms. Lately, having amassed more money than he knows what to do with, he's begun dabbling in stocks and mutual funds, a subject he imagines I, a professor, must know something about. He shares with me his misgivings about the market's "fuctuations." Mr. Purty wears a hearing aid, and the conclusion I've come to is that he's been mishearing words and phrases all his life. My mother's take is predictably less generous. She insists he's never read a book in his life and therefore had no opportunity to compare the words he's hearing with their representations on the printed page. She may be right. One thing is certain. Mr. Purty doesn't understand that his verbal miscues are a serious matter to my mother, that she could never take seriously the affections of a verbally clumsy man. Even his awe of her own verbal dexterity she holds against him. For Mr. Purty, listening to my mother talk is not unlike watching a bear dance. It's just the damndest thing. There's nothing and no one my mother won't pass judgment on, and this nonplusses Mr. Purty, who, if he has opinions, keeps them to himself. That my mother has so many and writes them down for publication in the newspaper strikes Mr. Purty as unaccountable behavior. If he were ever to have an opinion, the last thing he'd think to do with it is write it down.
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LibraryThing member PeskyLibrary
This modern satire about the intricacies of college faculty relationships is laugh-out-loud funny in unexpected ways. Russo’s characters are artfully drawn with depth. We all know one or more of these characters in our own lives. The comical aspects of the story arise out of “everyman’s”
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tendency to avoid the often inevitable pitfalls life throws at us. This I can best sum up by my friend Suzanne’s comment, “I will know my life has gone to hell when Fox News knocks on my door.” The story follows William Henry Devereaux Jr., English Dept. Interim Chair, during what must be the most torturous week of his life, replete with wild women, psycho students, paparazzi and personal agonies both physical and familial. The beauty in the story is his ability to see past the agony to the levity. Great read! MAT
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LibraryThing member nbsp
I laughed aloud - a once every ten books event. Main character is Wm. Henry Devereaux, Jr., acting English Dept. chairman at W. Central Pa. University. Novel encapsulates a week of crises in his life that made me wonder at how much we humans can endure. Another wonder is the wry humor that Hank
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sustains throughout.
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LibraryThing member goose114
Straight Man follows William Henry Devereaux Jr. (referred to as Hank) who is the interim dean of the English department at a small college in Pennsylvania. His father is a world renowned English professor whose publications have greatly impacted the literary community. Hank is a man who does not
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take anything too seriously and does not understand why other people do. When faced with difficult situations he typically turns to humor in order to lighten the atmosphere while wondering why no one is able to fix the situation. Professors in Hank's department are constantly at each other’s throats, and are unwilling to work with one another. Hank is suddenly faced with numerous obstacles in his life, compounded by his wife's absence from home and the return of his famous father who abandoned him and his mother decades earlier.

Russo does a wonderful job mixing humor and serious situations. A hilarious scenario remains deeply impactful and representative of more serious matters. Hank is the perfect vehicle to illuminate the stupidity of academia and some life obstacles while highlighting the impact that it makes on the characters. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good time read while still maintaining a meaningful story.
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LibraryThing member JoniMFisher
Hilarious romp into academia told from the point of view of an iconoclast. Russo is brilliant!
LibraryThing member sugarmag
I am enjoying this book so far. The author is spending a lot of time on character development and he also talks about telling stories and i like that
LibraryThing member m.belljackson
Straight Man begins with the death of William's new dog, Red, and ends with the needless death of his dog, Occam.

One more stupid thing that William did not follow up on.

Why doesn't he just go to the doctor and spare reader all the funky pee details?

Why cut down trees for no viable reason?

Why keep
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trying to strange the terrified goose?

Why is saying you will kill ducks funny in any way/


The best thing after enduring the lengthy repetitive University English Department is
to be inspired to visit the extraordinary life of William of Occam.


1/8 through book and I don't care about any of the characters except Occam - this lasts to the end of the book.
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LibraryThing member wordygirl39
Oh, if you teach English at any college in any town in America, this is the book for you. I laughed a lot. Russo nailed it all.
LibraryThing member karriethelibrarian
My favorite Richard Russo book because it was laugh out-loud funny. He does a great job of capturing how self-important some college professors think they are.
LibraryThing member malpower
I pretty much love all Russo's books, but this is on my "all time favorites" list -- it's wonderful, hilarious and I had so much sympathy for William Henry Devereaux, Jr., aka Hank, college professor, and Russo's wonderful protagonist. With great humor and familiarity with the academic world,
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Russo, as the blurb on the book says, "skewers academic pretensions and infighting with mad abandon"
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LibraryThing member Hanesworth
This is by far one of the best books I have recently read. Humor and pathos are mixed throughout the book. This is one book that I did not skim any part of, not wanting to miss anything. I had also read Empire Falls but found that got a little tedious in parts. The Straight Man kept my interest
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until the end.
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LibraryThing member Gary10
Laugh out loud account of the chair of a backwater English Department peopled by the usual dysfunctional academic characters. But Russo has them spot on.
LibraryThing member jlizzy
Highly recommended as this book is very funny and clever. A must for anyone in academics.
LibraryThing member RavenousReaders
A week in the life of an English prof at a small “badly under-funded college” in rural PA. One of the funniest novels set in academia that you’ll ever read. If you liked Jane Smiley’s Moo, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty or David Lodge’s Changing Places (to pick just one), Straight Man won’t
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disappoint. I really fell in love with these characters and, like the cliché says, did not want it to end. Expect guffawing out loud with this one so you may want to avoid reading it in public, or next to a sleeping loved one.

Reviewed by: John
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LibraryThing member jbeem
“Exceptionally funny book with an academic setting.”
LibraryThing member debnance
I was unexpectedly delightedwith this book that I amfinding myself recommending itto everyone. The main character,William Henry Devereaux, Jr. isthe chairman of the Englishdepartment at a tiny college inPennsylvania. I can see Devereaux played by Bill Murray; he isconstantly making little
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sarcasticbut hilarious remarks, almost likeShakespearean asides, but everyone takes him seriously.Even when he makes the remarks wearing a fake nose and fakeglasses! Recommended.
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