About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

#94 - Straight Man

Yes, I know I'm not actually posting this till 2011, but my 94th & final book of 2010 was Straight Man, by Richard Russo (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).

Jacket Summary: "In this uproarious new novel, Richard Russo performs his characteristic high-wire walk between hilarity and heartbreak. Russo's protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux's reluctance is partly rooted in his character -- he is a born anarchist -- and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans. In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo -- side-splitting and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down."

Opening Line: "When my nose finally stops bleeding and I've disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in."

My Take: I always enjoy Russo's books and this one didn't disappoint. Straight Man does for second-tier liberal arts colleges what Jane Smiley's Moo did for the gargantuan public universities of the Midwest. Obviously, most back-cover blurbs tend toward the hyperbolic, but here I have to agree: this is either the saddest comic novel or the funniest sad novel I've read in quite a while. The above summary notwithstanding, it's not quite the laugh-a-minute riot you might expect. Rather, the humor here comes in Hank Devereax's, the supporting characters', and the town of Railton's unvarnished warts-and-all humanity.

I've often said that even when a novel's primarily a character study or portrait of a place, I need at least some plot to hold my interest. In Straight Man, Russo's kind enough to oblige me in this regard. The frame story -- Russo's colleagues' efforts to oust him as chair, while at the same time his dean and old friend is trying desperately to throw him a life jacket -- is serviceable, if not particularly meaty in itself. What holds the reader's attention, though, is wanting to know how all the secondary story lines and characters turn out. Will Hank give in and sleep with his alcoholic colleague's lovely adjunct daughter, the peach-eating Meg? Will his daughter Julie ever grow up and turn responsible? Will his wife, Lily, accept a plum out-of-town job -- and what would that mean for his comfortable, if uninspired, small-town academic life?

Probably one of the most interesting and, to me, appealing aspects of the story and Hank's character is his complete refusal to take anything seriously. I've worked with people like this (hell, I've probably been a person like this), and frankly, usually find them as exasperating as Hank's colleagues and family seem to find him. Here, though, I also saw the pathos and loneliness just beneath the surface -- a testament to Russo's subtlety and skill at capturing the nuances of personality.

Entertaining enough to pass muster as a vacation read, but serious enough not to leave you feeling like you've just eaten a bag of M&Ms. If you're looking for an interesting, moving character story, and can accept its somewhat slow pace as part of its charm, I recommend it highly.

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