A comedy on university downsizing. To make sure the English department's budget is not cut, William Devereaux, its chairman, goes on TV threatening to kill a goose a day if that happens. Unfortunately a goose is beheaded soon after and Devereaux finds himself in hot water. The setting is Pennsylvania. By the author of Nobody's Fool.
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 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.
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 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.)
“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.
“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.
I've had Straight Man sitting on my bookshelf for about a year now, and for 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.
A book to make you fall in love with reading again.
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.
"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.
Reviewed by: John
The flyleaf of the novel captures the gist of Hank's tale: "Over the course of a single convoluted weekend, he threatens to execute a goose, 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 father, the one-time king of American Literary Theory, at an amusement park."
Faculty infighting, academic puffery, and a possible fling with a young coed (is she flirting with Hank by sending him peach pits ripe with erotic symbolism?) add to the fun. You can tell that Russo loves his main character, however -- the author's big-hearted treatment of Hank invites you to feel Hank's pain even as you laugh at his personal and professional pecadilloes.
In the course of a week Henry, an anarchist in heart with a lack of political acumen, is mangled by an angry colleague in his nose, battered by the wave of rumors auguring an impending university-wide purge, swept by a surging sentiment among the mutinous colleagues who threatened a recall. And to top it all, he dreads the returning of his father who left him and his mother for the first of his female graduate students some 40 years ago.
Henry's determined reticence and the complaisance rooted in his character somehow galvanize the silent tension that reigns over him and his colleagues. So long as he dismisses the purge as rumors, his friends and colleagues think he is committing political suicide and are ready to strangle him. This is where his character flaw being fully exposed, that in the face of life's seriousness, its pettiness, its tragedy, its absurdity, and its lack of coherent meaning he seems to be unusually ignorant and indifferent, and sadly, he finds himself defenseless. This is where his tragedy lies dormantly until something as pathetic as the pettiness of people politics at work evokes its existence. His tragedy lies in the fact that he is too reasonable, being overly logical. So long as he can maintain the public posture that does not call him out of his comfort zone, he remains complaisant and unchallenged. His complaisance demonstrates that a great deal of havoc can be wrought in relationship (especially the ones that are no longer remediable) by anyone so inclined, at least if that person is sufficiently insensitive to ridicule, personal invective and threat.
The mellow professor's sudden flamed-up reaction surprises all that is used to his insensitiveness. His threat to kill a duck (a goose!) on TV camera at the frustration of not receiving a budget serves more than just a comic relief of the tension that builds up incessantly. The escapade almost bespeaks his formidable conviction of refusing to sell out his colleagues; and on top of it he radically comes out of his nut-shell to protest injustice of the university administration. On facing the accusation of killing a goose of which he does not deny being the perpetrator, even his staunch political allies have aligned themselves against him. They speak of him performance as chair, detailing of many grievances, suspecting him of aiding the administration in the purge, and misinforming and betraying the department. At the core of this crisis he has to confront the question: Does he really belong? He is either to live among his colleagues who are as flustered, complacent, deadwood and tenuredly banal as the geese, or he should take a respectful leave and leave behind the squalor of politics.
STRAIGHT MAN alerts not only its protagonist but all his witnesses the conflicts, wounds, unsettled scores we have never come to terms with, that sneak up on us, insisting upon immediate attention and action, if not resolution. His cowardice is always understood to be the sole impediment to his reconciling with his philandering, distant father. This cowardice manifests in his assiduous contribution, under a pseudonym, of satires on academic lunacy which has raised ire of the university personnel. While one might laugh and feel disconcerted at Henry's vices, it's also time to reconsider issues in life that one has so adamantly evaded.