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Reading Richard Russo's newest novel, Straight Man, you can't help but experience a strong sense of déja vù'. The protagonist is a hapless middle-aged man who's ironic, irreverent, perhaps even brilliant, but lost without the keener emotional insight and wisdom of his beautiful wife. He mediates his relationships not just with his friends and children, but with his very self, as he negotiates the dangers of a week alone, confronting his own mortality.
And what, precisely, are those dangers? A half-dozen women of all ages he is half in love with, who may or may not be willing to sleep with him the moment he is ready to betray his marriage vows. A divorced friend who tends to keep him up drinking and with whom he spends a night in jail for drunk driving. His own perhaps self-destructive inability to avoid provoking other people, especially at the college where he is interim chair of a hilariously combative English department. His blindness to his own feelings and motivations, which leaves him believing that his behavior -- the trajectory of his life, really -- is not exactly his to control. His refusal to take care of himself physically: He ignores everything from a cold to a new inability to pee until they assume the proportions of high crisis.
We have seen something like the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr. in the novels of Richard Ford, Tom McGuane, Louis B. Jones and Larry McMurtry, to name but a few. Yet Russo's Straight Man -- a departure from his acclaimed upstate New York novels, Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool -- is so funny, so beautifully written, so fully imagined, it is easy to forgive its familiarity. His narrator's description of life at a mediocre Pennsylvania college is wicked and precise, and easily a metaphor for the mean-spirited insanity of most institutions. There is a wonderful scene in which Devereaux is televised in fake nose and glasses holding a goose from the campus duck pond and threatening to kill a duck a day until the state approves him his budget for the following year, and another of Devereaux inadvertently peeing on himself in his office and climbing into the ceiling (where workers have been removing asbestos) to avoid detection and (while he's at it) to eavesdrop on the departmental meeting at which he is to be impeached.
In their national search for a new chair (stymied by endless bureaucratic inanities), the members of the English department naturally rule out anyone illustrious, because that would invite comparisons to their own work. They bicker over the remaining choices to hilarious effect. No one wants a candidate, in fact, who teaches anything resembling their specialty or who has published anything in their particular genre. And there is, of course, the question of whether they should consider another white male. Devereaux has secretly renamed one young man on the faculty Orshee because he interjects that phrase when anyone uses the masculine pronoun.
Russo is an easy, elegant writer. The book is beautifully plotted, and Russo makes you care about Devereaux and his fate. He also makes you laugh out loud. "Truth be told," Devereaux muses in the prologue, "I'm not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it's been my experience that most people don't want to be entertained. They want to be comforted." Somehow Russo has managed both. -- Salon