Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Straight Man by Richard Russo

At the moment, I have two wonderful books going, one at work and one at home. The problem is that my "home" book is too stimulating for before-bed reading. It has lots of ideas in it and it gets my brain going, and I can't fall asleep. So I've turned to an old favorite, Straight Man by Richard Russo.

Although the main character is a straight man, the title refers to comedy, not sexuality. And the book is pretty funny. It chronicles an unusual week in the life of Hank Devereaux, an English professor at a state school in Western Pennsylvania, and a man to whom, by his own admission, things seldom happen. They sure do this week, though. Hank is the interim chair of the most divided group of people you could imagine (one of them injures his nose in a committee meeting: having had it with his sarcastic comments, she smacks him in the face with a spiral notebook that had a loose wire. On the way home, another practically runs him off the road, just to make him get out of the car so he could take a picture.) He also has some issues in his personal life: his youngest daughter's marriage is on the rocks, and his father (a distinguished academic who walked out of his life when he was 10) is coming home to stay with his mother.

I've read all of Richard Russo's books and find him to be a somewhat uneven writer. Mohawk and The Risk Pool were not terribly good, nor was his book of short stories. Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls, by contrast, were TERRIBLY good, so good that you carried the mood of them around for days. I put off reading Straight Man for a long time, because I suspected it would be one of the bad ones. I was very pleasantly surprised.

The characters are delectable. He has a young colleague nicknamed Orshee because he's so opposed to sexism that whenever anyone uses the male pronoun generically, he pipes up with "or she". Another colleague is an alcoholic who is struggling to put his ten kids through college, and often calls up, drunk, to berate him in tirades that always start "You Judas Peckerwood..." A workshop student named Leo writes very bad, very violent and misogynistic short stories and can't be dissuaded from his belief that he's the next Hemingway. There's his mother's landlord and would-be suitor, Mr. Purty, who collects and sells junk and is given to malapropisms. There's the cynical CEO of the college, and the chief of security, who's just dying for the opportunity to call in the National Guard to quell a student rebellion.

But above it all, there's Hank. Hank is in the throes of some pretty serious stuff: aside from all the family and work stuff, there's an internal crisis there. Once, he published a novel. He hasn't written anything since, and is facing the question of who he is and what his life will ultimately mean. He's getting old and time's ticking. These issues, and the humor with which he approaches them, are what makes the book engaging, and makes it stay with you after you're done. This is one I don't get tired of.


kookiejar said...

I'm so glad you liked this one. I LOVED 'Empire Falls' and was a little afraid to open 'Straight Man' for fear it wouldn't live up to my expectations.

LD/Brownie said...

I was afraid of that as well, kookiejar. It seemed so far from his usual subject matter, and he's written a couple that weren't all that great. But I saw it at the library one night when I couldn't think what to get, and thought, what the hell? I like Nobody's Fool, too. Have you read that one?

kookiejar said...

I haven't, but if you liked 'Straight Man' and 'Empire Falls', it sounds like 'Nobody's Fool' will be a safe bet. I've heard its good. Of all his books those are the three that come up in discussions over and over.

Bybee said...

OMG! What a great review! I read Empire Falls a year or so ago and really liked it a lot. Like you, I didn't care much for The Risk Pool, so I wasn't sure about Straight Man. Onto the long long long, etc. list it goes!