Book review: Straight Man – Richard Russo

Since I dedicated our many car rides this weekend (three three hour ones, to a wedding, to th Eastern Shore with my extended family, and then back home) to finishing a book, I thought I would give a little shout out toRichard Russo’s fine piece of work. Straight Man (1997), was my third Russo book, theEmpire Falls (2002) and The Risk Pool (1994). All three manage to capture stories about men reaching turning points in their lives, and provide incredible insightful glances into the way in which these men cope with the pressures of family, profession, money, and women.

In Straight Man, Russo follows Hank Devereaux, the interim head of an English Department, child of a legendary literary critic, and general smart-ass, who never takes anything seriously, much to the detriment of everyone around him. Through the novel, you follow his quick downward spiral into general academic mayhem, including the threatening of all-out firings of professors, the murder of a goose, liasons with local new reporters, an unfortunate urinary issue, among other things. Russo manages to tie this altogether so that it makes sense, and, most importantly, is hilarious.

My favorite part of the book is its portrayal of the academic department: each character is a charicature of a certain type of academic. For example, there is the smart ass, the pansy, the cranky guy who doesn’t get what he wants, the seductrist, the former seductrist, and, my personal favorite, the overly-sensitive liberal man. As in, he suggested that because he was a white male, he shouldn’t be given tenure because his spot should really be given to a woman or person of color (this was soon recanted, as can be understood). he also made a motion during a faculty meeting, (one in which Hank, or main character, was listening in on from above, in the cieling, after having wet his pants while napping in his office) that everyone should try to like each other more.

All in all, an eventful, funny, enjoyable book. One that tends to pick on itself, or its profession, a little bit. There is some sort of criticism going on where a book ridicules departments that would study the writing of it (does that make sense?). The department comes across as pretty deficient, the college poorly off. Hank, a writer of only one fiction book (entitled Off the Road), teaches writing to a bunch of students who don’t grasp his teachings, while it is his secretary who ends up landing a book deal by the end of the book. There is something to be said about a department of English who’s only member that gets published is the woman answering the phones. It is also hinted at in the final scene, where a room full of male professors manage to trap themselves in a small room, filling the room so much that they cannot open the door, which swings in. Finally, they all laugh, recognizing the obsurdity of the situation. Finally, they decided to not take themselves too seriously.