I keep a list on my phone of books I’ve heard/read about that I might be interested in, then consult my phone when I go to a library or book store without a specific target. I often don’t recall where or when I heard/read about the authors or titles, and so I came home the other day with Straight Man by Richard Russo. On the list, Russo’s name didn’t ring a bell. Then I remembered a book which I think was called Nobody’s Fool which had impressed me not much. It was ante Writer Working, so I couldn’t look it up. I went ahead with Straight Man anyway, and I’m not sorry. Not elated, but not sorry.
Straight Man is a novel of academe, most of which are not worth the match it would take to light them afire. Then there are a few, such as Robertson Davies ‘s series that light up the world. Russo’s effort falls somewhere between.
The protagonist/narrator is a forty-nine year old English professor/author (one novel, many years defunct) with a rebellious streak and a great sardonic wit. He lives and teaches at a state college in rural Pennsylvania, has tenure, and takes us through an end-of-semester load of professional and personal crises that would break a camel’s back. The book commences with a description of a department meeting that ranks among the funniest of its kind I’ve ever read or heard of. Would that the rest of the book lived up to that level.
William Henry Devereaux, Jr. (as he often refers to himself) is the son of a prominent English professor/literary critic of the same name (except Dad’s a Sr., not a Jr.), and Jr. has spend most of his life trying to avoid becoming Sr. with limited success. So there’s predictable theme #1. Predictable theme #2 is the writer/teacher of integrity struggling to keep from succumbing to establishment hypocrisy. Predictable theme #3 is that sardonic wit is a defense mechanism against intimacy which creates problems for the people around WHD, Jr. I could keep the count going, but you get the idea.
The WHD, Jr. character is strong enough and appealing enough to carry the book along with a strong and humorous voice and to mask many of its flaws. Thus, the reader–at least this reader–keeps reading and chuckling despite himself. As strong as is the beginning, so is the ending quite lame–a comfortably packaged little epilogue where all gets pleasantly (and in some cases inexplicably–how could a man go so long unable to urinate and have nothing at all wrong with him? And why does the wife have virtually no reaction to the naked-with-voluptuous-babe-in-a-hot-tub-photo she finds?) tidied up, and no one gets really hurt, and everyone goes away pretty much friendly and happy.
Ho, chuckle, chuckle, hum.