Straight Man – Adventures in Academia
I’m new to the book review field, but my impression is that the review should encourage the person to actually read the book. If true, the books I’ve read most recently seem especially poor choices for possible reviews. As Jenny can attest, my book reading habits illustrate an interesting masochistic (why won’t this book ever end?!) amnesia (wait a minute, I do like 700-page biographies of a bank). Of course, with baby #2 due shortly, I can say the same of her.
So I was left to peruse my bookshelves and came across Straight Man, a wonderful novel by Richard Russo. Best known for his Pullitzer winning novel, Empire Falls, in Straight Man Russo presents us with a novel equal parts tongue-in-cheek comedy and complex personal commentary, the offspring from a late-night rendezvous between Portnoy’s Complaint and Confederacy of Dunces. Within the first 3 pages I was laughing out loud, repeatedly and uncontrollably.
Our protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the interim and reluctant chairman of the English department of West Central Pennsylvania University, a second-rate school in the middle of nowhere. In the span of a few days, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry poet, imagine his faithful wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce or kill him with peach pits, urge a student to “always understate necrophilia,” and publicly threaten to execute a duck (actually a goose) a day until his department is funded. All this while coming to terms with his brilliant but morally bankrupt father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions.
Straight Man is an amazing read and very well written. It’s a hilarious expose on the foibles of academia, in particular the red tape and infighting among typical institutional organizations, where “the higher the degree of fighting, the less there is to fight for.” Yet it transcends mere critique, requiring and facilitating self-reflection. It shows the desperation that comes with the failure to follow the early arc of a life’s potential and promise, the searing truths about life’s missed opportunities. Encapsulating this failure, many can relate to Russo’s comment that, “We will make it. Why this fact should be so discouraging is what I’d like to know.” But while the book asks sometimes uncomfortable questions, it’s compassionate in softening the blow of answers we don’t like, of the recognition that perhaps it’s the questions and assumptions that are flawed, not our lives.
As he did in Nobody’s Fool, Russo proves a master of depicting the fraught, unvoiced currents that run between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and colleagues. In his intelligence, humor, and ability to merge sorrow and farce into a seamless fabric, Richard Russo stands out as a writer of surpassing insight and humanity.
I found myself, at the end of this richly funny book, pondering the nature of comedy and the uses to which we put it. It struck me that the tragic-comic is a kind of default setting of drama, because as flawed humans we can only stand so much tragedy before we short-circuit into irony or farce. But that makes humor a way of deadening pain, of undercutting it’s power. No other author is able to effortlessly straddle the line between heartbreak and hilarity. Perhaps Russo’s greatest gift is to show that we need less a sense of responsibility and more a sense of humor. In Russo’s world, the tonic for heartache is lightheartedness.