On Richard Russo’s Straight Man

What do you think was the first thing I did on finishing this book? Any guesses? You at the back there? You’re quite right – I got onto amazon and ordered everything by this man I could get hold of. What a great writer he is, wry and clever and poignant and so very witty. I’ve already promised this book to a friend of mine who’s in a much more conflicted department than my own, and urged my husband to read it because I know he’ll love it.

And the cause of all this adulation? The story of Hank Devereaux, temporary Chair of the English Faculty from Hell at West Central Pennsylvania University. Devereaux is a man with a sense of humour where his sense of responsibility should be, and if he’s been forced to lead the squabbling, neurotic bunch of no-hopers he calls his colleagues, he’ll do so as the Lord of Misrule, whipping up vituperation and dissent to epic proportions. He just can’t help himself when there’s perverse pleasure to be had, which is odd because helping himself seems to be the one thing that Hank generally can’t do. For this reason he’s a dormant novelist stuck in a second-rate teaching institution, half in love with three women and wholly out of synch with his life. But this is nothing compared to the trouble that’s on its way. This year it seems that the rumours for once are true: he’ll have to lose a fifth of his department to meet new budgets. And deal with his daughter’s failing marriage. And pass a kidney stone. And if he can manage all that, his aberrant, adulterous, neglectful, but professionally victorious father is all set to return, a broken man, to the care of his ex-wife. However, even before the bedlam is unleashed, the indications that Hank will somehow survive it are clear to be seen in the untarnished love his wife bears for him. Fiction has simple rules, really: two inviolable regulations state that bad mothers are unforgiveable, and loved husbands are untouchable. The measure of a man’s real character can be gauged by the quality of his wife’s fidelity, and Lily knows Hank and loves him nevertheless. Still, at this crucial point in time Lily removes her magic ring of wifely protection by going away for an interview, and the subsequent events occur as if within a fold of time occasioned by her absence. This is rather apt as narrative itself always takes place within a pocket of time outside of time, and as such provides a space in which anything can, and often does, happen.

‘I have this fear,’ says Lily, the Oracle. ‘I can’t decide where you’re going to be when I get home. In the hospital or in jail.’ Well, Hank is never one to miss an opportunity for welcoming in chaos. And it’s not just the unwitting fulfilment of the prophesy that gives this novel shades of Oedipus. Underlying the superficial drama of Hank’s life lies buried much deeper the resentment and longing that characterise his stillborn relationship to his father. Can Hank kill the domineering image of his father in his head and become his own man? It doesn’t help that they’ve got the same name. I read the kidney stone that Hank’s trying to pass as the bitter kernel of unspoken hatred he bears towards his father, which might explain why relief suddenly comes at the moment when he finally cuts the ties that bind him to the university, along with all the paternal, oppressive authority it represents. Hank’s no Oedipus in the Sophocles tradition – in the modern world (or at least on campus) men can’t really manage to avenge themselves by murdering others (or even innocent ducks), but they can manage to do a fair amount of damage to themselves, and the touching triumph of the book is to restore Hank to himself, to return the reins of his life to his hands and place him back in the driver’s seat.

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 humour always a way of deadening emotion, of undercutting it’s power and intensity. ‘I do not want to die,’ Hank tells us. ‘I’m as sure of this, I think, as a man can reasonably be. I do not want to learn, when I speak to Phil Watson tomorrow, that the asymmetry he thought he felt in my prostate is a tumor, and yet, there is a part of me that would thrill to receive such news. Why that should be I cannot imagine. Nor do I want the woman that I’m married to and that I love to leave me, but the thought of her doing so moves me in a way that our growing old together and contentedly slipping, in affectionate tandem, toward the grave does not.’ It’s interesting to see what Hank is prepared to trade here in order to experience something piercing, something excessive; to feel once again the agony and the ecstasy. I have seen it written many times, and for this reason risk a dangerous generalisation, that men (in particular) fear that they will lead only muffled lives. It’s the comic, which seems his saviour, that turns out to be Hank’s inner tyrant. Hence the competiton to be the straight man, the one who is not yet overwhelmed by life’s risibility.

But the real beauty of this book, for me, was its ability to show us how many-layered human beings are. To show us that we experience at all times a far-reaching arc of emotions from despair to resilient absurdity, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It shows us how our past is always there, a heartbeat away, inhabiting our actions and inhibiting others. It shows also how we can change and become new from one minute to the next, if we are willing, if we are loved, if we are brave. And for all that academics get a bit of a bashing in this novel (which it would seem they fully deserve), Hank is still in the right place, even if not perhaps with the right people, to acknowledge the multiple possibilities underpinning the narratives of our lives. Where else but an English Department would he be forced to examine and embrace the power of subtext? The value of re-interpretation? For being able to see things differently, no matter how simple or complex they may at first appear, turns out to be our saving grace.

13 thoughts on “On Richard Russo’s Straight Man

  1. I have had this book sitting on my shelf, a gift from someone or other, for probably a year now. Needless to say, it has moved its way to the front of the TBR list. Russo owes you a thank you note, by the way – I’m pretty sure he’ll see a spike in books sales thanks to this post.

    Now for a dilemna. Do I read the Straight Man, which I WANT to read after this wonderful review, or do I read King Leopold’s Ghost, which I promised myself I’d read?

  2. Litlove, Thank you so much for this marvelous review of one of my favorite writers. In the hands of a skilled writer, comedy can be so memorably transformative — through inversion and confusion and mistake, characters come to see themselves differently — and sometimes, if we’re lucky, so do we. Best, BL

  3. Oh, lucky, lucky you to have the likes of Empire Falls and The Risk Pool to enjoy for the very first time! You’ll find they’re not as funny as Straight Man (at least I didn’t think so), but the resonance will still be there. And then you can move on to Irving. I always say Russo is like Irving without Irving’s “weird factor.” You may understand what I mean once you’ve read the two. Even more Russo-esque than Irving is Wallace Stegner(actually, I should say Russo is Stegner-esque, because Stegner was around first, and I’m positive he must have been an influence on Russo, but am too lazy to do the research right now to see if I can find anything about that). Stegner’s Crossing to Safety came to mind when I was reading your first Straight-Man-inspired post about academics (I’m not really quite sure why, as it’s not at all a send-up of academia, although academia plays an important role in the book), and whose Big Rock Candy Mountain is magnificent. (Okay, I’ll stop giving you more books to add to your reading list now. Perhaps you’ve already read Stegner anyway?)

  4. “Devereaux is a man with a sense of humor where his sense of responsibility should be…” A perfect line. Perfect. This is the best review of Russo I’ve read, and now I can’t wait to see what you’ll say about his other books. Empire Falls is a gorgeously written novel, not as funny as SM, as others have pointed out, but it has the same ability to pierce straight to the reader’s heart with some very simple and simply observed quiet moments in life. The line in SM, for example, when Hank says that he can understand his dog always slays me–a perfect moment for a man who does not really understand people all that well. And I always cry at the end.

  5. I haven’t read Straight Man, but I loved! loved! loved! Empire Falls. Empire Falls is not a comedy, but it captures so beautifully those comic moments of life that make life bearable by balancing out the sad and tragic. Russo captures it all. I hadn’t thought of comparing him with either Irving or Stegner, but I think Emily’s right — he’s Irving without the weirdness factor that too often dissolves into grotesqueness.

  6. I realised the other day that it’s ages since I’d read a novel. I spend my daily commute either with head in laptop (my own work, not works’!) or reading technical books in an attempt to stuff more knowledge into my poor brain.

    So I figured a needed a bit of light relief. I was in Borders on Monday and bought two books; one was about DOM Scripting (techie manual on JavaScript, I know, I know) and the other was Straight Man!

    I have begun reading, and am finding it a great book (apart from the wretchedly small print size, argh). Thanks again for the recommendation 🙂

  7. Pingback: Best Book Club Books « Tales from the Reading Room

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