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
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Picture this: William Henry (Hank) Devereaux Jr., tenured professor at a second-rank college in Pennsylvania, where he is chairman of the fractious English Department, faces TV cameras wearing a false nose and glasses, brandishing a goose over his head and threatening to kill a duck a day until he gets a budget. It's a vintage Russo scene, and there are others like it in this hilarious, wise and compassionate novel. Pushing 50, Hank is suffering a midlife crisis he will not acknowledge. After his miserable childhood as the son of a chilly mother and a downright icy father--a renowned professor, literary critic and adulterer--Hank has avoided confrontation with his emotions. He jokes about his mediocre job, his lack of self-esteem (his one novel, 20 years ago, got good reviews but didn't sell) and his role as goad and gadfly to his friends and enemies. During the course of the novel, which begins with the burial of one dog and ends with the interment of another, Hank manages to get himself in continuous trouble, in jail, in a ladies room (where he attempts to divest himself of the pants, shoe and sock he has peed in), in the hospital and out of a job. Meanwhile, Russo concocts an inspired send-up of academia's infighting and petty intrigues that ranks with the best of David Lodge, as we follow Hank's progress from perverse mockery to insight and acceptance. Readers who do not laugh uncontrollably during this raucous, witty and touching work are seriously impaired.
Tom De Haven
The funniest serious novel I have read since -- well, maybe since Portnoy's complaint.
-- New York Times Book Review
[A novel] by turns hilarious and compassionate.
A gloriously funny and involving fourth novel from the author of such comfortable-as-old-shoes fictions as Mohawk (1986) and Nobody's Fool (1993).
Writing teacher William Henry "Hank" Devereaux Jr. is a one- shot novelist (Off the Road) who's settled into an embattled stint as department head at an academic sinkhole where he finds it prudent to simply tread water and go with the flow (anyway, "promotion in an institution like West Central Pennsylvania University was a little like being proclaimed the winner of a shit- eating contest"). Hank tries to keep his wits about him by adopting the philosophical principle known as Occam's Razor (that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon or problem is usually the correct one), but his life keeps getting in the way. A nearby married daughter is having husband trouble. The state legislature promises to eviscerate his departmental budget. Hank's "crushes" on various women, including a colleague's adult daughter, complicate his otherwise passive devotion to his no-nonsense wife Lily. And, in addition to possible prostate cancer, Hank is assailed by even more undignified woes: His nose is bloodied by a poet's notebook, and he's suspected (with good reason) of murdering a gooseand of even worse thingsby a hilarious, vividly rendered cadre of fellow academics, townspeople, and students, each of whom is sharply individualized. Though the quests for tenure and priority are generously detailed, and though Hank's relationship with his long-absent father reaches a satisfying closure, plot is only secondary (or maybe tertiary or quaternary) in a Russo novel. This latest seduces and charms with its voice (i.e., Hank Devereaux's): Laconic, deadpan, disarmingly modest and self- effacing, it's the perfect vehicle for another of Russo's irresistible revelations of the agreeable craziness of everyday life.
Besides, how can you not like a writing prof who counsels an overzealous student to "Always understate necrophilia"?
Read an Excerpt
Chapter ICopyright© 1998 by Richard Russo
When my nose finally stops bleeding and I've disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in. June, his wife, whose sense of self-worth is not easily tilted, drives a new Saab. "That seat goes back," Teddy says, observing that my knees are practically under my chin.
When we stop at an intersection for oncoming traffic, I run my fingers along the side of the seat, looking for the release. "It does, huh?"
"It's supposed to," he says, sounding academic, helpless.
I know it's supposed to, but I give up trying to make it, preferring the illusion of suffering. I'm not a guilt provoker by nature, but I can play that role. I release a theatrical sigh intended to convey that this is nonsense, that my long legs could be stretched out comfortably beneath the wheel of my own Lincoln, a car as ancient as Teddy's Civic, but built on a scale more suitable to the long-legged William Henry Devereauxs of the world, two of whom, my father and me, remain above ground.
Teddy is an insanely cautious driver, unwilling to goose his little Civic into a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. "The cars are spaced just wrong. I can't help it," he explains when he sees me grinning at him. Teddy's my age, forty-nine, and though his features are more boyish, he too is beginning to show signs of age. Never robust, his chest seems to have become more concave, which emphasizes his small paunch. His hands are delicate, almost feminine, hairless. His skinny legs appear lost in his trousers. It occurs to me as I study himthat Teddy would have a hard time starting over-that is, learning how unfamiliar things work, competing, finding a mate. The business of young men. "Why would I have to start over?" he wants to know, a frightened expression deepening the lines around the corners of his eyes.
Apparently, to judge from the way he's looking at me now, I have spoken my thought out loud, though I wasn't aware of doing so. "Don't you ever wish you could?"
"Could what?" he says, his attention diverted. Having spied a break in the oncoming traffic, he takes his foot off the brake and leans forward, his foot poised over but not touching the gas pedal, only to conclude that the gap between the cars isn't as big as he thought, settling back into his seat with a frustrated sigh.
Something about this gesture causes me to wonder if a rumor I've been hearing about Teddy's wife, June-that she's involved with a junior faculty member in our department-just might be true. I haven't given it much credence until now because Teddy and June have such a perfect symbiotic relationship. In the English department they are known as Fred and Ginger for the grace with which they move together, without a hint of passion, toward a single, shared destination. In an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion and retribution, two people working together represent a power base, and no one has understood this sad academic truth better than Teddy and June. It's hard to imagine either of them risking it. On the other hand, it must be hard to be married to a man like Teddy, who's always leaning forward in anticipation, foot poised above the gas pedal, but too cautious to stomp.
We are on Church Street, which parallels the railyard that divides the city of Railton into two dingy, equally unattractive halves. This is the broadest section of the yard, some twenty sets of tracks wide, and most of those tracks are occupied by a rusty boxcar or two. A century ago the entire yard would have been full, the city of Railton itself thriving, its citizens looking forward to a secure future. No longer. On Church Street, where we remain idling in the left-turn lane, there is no longer a single church, though there were once, I'm told, half a dozen. The last of them, a decrepit red brick affair, long condemned and boarded up, was razed last year after some kids broke in and fell through the floor. The large parcel of land it perched on now sits empty. It's the fact that there are so many empty, littered spaces in Railton, like the windblown expanses between the boxcars in the railyard, that challenges hope. Within sight of where we sit waiting to turn onto Pleasant Street, a man named William Cherry, a lifelong Conrail employee, has recently taken his life by lying down on the track in the middle of the night. At first the speculation was that he was one of the men laid off the previous week, but the opposite turned out to be true. He had in fact lust retired with his pension and full benefits. On television his less fortunate neighbors couldn't understand it. He had it made, they said.
When it's safe, when all the oncoming traffic has passed, Teddy turns onto Pleasant, the most unpleasant of Railton streets. Lined on both sides with shabby one- and two-story office fronts, Pleasant Street is too steep to climb in winter when there's snow. Now, in early April, I suspect it may be too steep for Teddy's Civic, which is whirring heroically in its lower gears and going all of fifteen miles an hour. There's a plateau and a traffic light halfway up, and when we stop, I say, "Should I get out and push?"
"It's just cold," Teddy tells me. "Really. We're fine."
No doubt he's right. We will make it. Why this fact should be so discouraging is what I'd like to know. I can't help wondering if William Cherry also feared things would work out if he didn't do something drastic to prevent them.
"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can," I chant, as the light changes and Teddy urges forward the Little Civic That Could. A few months ago I foolishly tried to climb this same hill in a light snow. It was nearly midnight, and I was heading home from the campus and hadn't wanted to go the long way, which added ten minutes. During the long Pennsylvania winters, curbside parking is not allowed at night, so the street had a deserted, ominous feel. Mine was the only car on the five-block incline, and I made it without incident to this very plateau where Teddy and I have now stopped. The office of my insurance agent was on the corner, and I remember wishing he was there to see me do something so reckless in a car he was insuring. When the light changed, my tires spun, then caught, and I labored up the last two blocks. I couldn't have been more than ten yards from the crest of the hill when I felt the tires begin to spin and the rear end to drift. When the car stalled and I realized the brake exerted no meaningful influence, I sat back and became a witness to my own folly. With the engine dead and the snow muffling all other sounds, I found myself in a silent ballet as I slalomed gracefully down the hill, backward as far as the landing where it appeared that I would stop, right in front of my insurance agent's, but then I slipped over the edge and spun down the last three blocks, rebounding off curbs like the cue ball in a game of bumper pool, finally coming to rest at the entrance to the railyard, having suffered a loss of equilibrium but otherwise unscathed. A friend, Bodie Pie, who lives in a second-floor flat near the bottom of the hill and claims to have witnessed my balletic descent, swears she heard me laughing maniacally, but I don't remember that. The only emotion I recall is similar to the one I feel now, with Teddy on this same hill. That is, a certain sense of disappointment about such drama resulting in so little consequence. Teddy is sure we'll make it, and so am I. We have tenure, the two of us.
Once out of town, the rejuvenated Civic rushes along the two-lane blacktop like a cartoon car with a big, loopy smile (I knew I could, I knew I could), the Pennsylvania countryside hurtling by. Most of the trees along the side of the road are budding. Farther back in the deep woods there may still be patches of dirty snow, but spring is definitely in the air, and Teddy has cracked his window to take advantage of it. His thinning hair stirs in the breeze, and I half-expect to see evidence of new leafy growth on his scalp. I know he's been contemplating Rogaine. "You're only taking me home so you can flirt with Lily," I tell him.
This makes Teddy flush. He's had an innocent crush on my wife for over twenty years. If there's such a thing as an innocent crush. If there's such a thing as innocence. Since we built the house in the country, Teddy's had fewer opportunities to see Lily, so he's always on the lookout for an excuse. On those rare Saturday mornings when we still play basketball, he stops by to give me a lift. The court we play on is a few blocks from his house, but he insists the four-mile drive into the country isn't that far out of his way. One drunken night, over a decade ago, he made the mistake of confessing to me his infatuation with Lily. The secret was no sooner out than he tried to extort from me a promise not to reveal it. "If you tell her, so help me . . . ," he kept repeating.
"Don't be an idiot," I assured him. "Of course I'm going to tell her. I'm telling her as soon as I get home."
"What about our friendship?"
"Ours," he explained. "Yours and mine."
"What about it?" I said. "I'm not the one in love with your wife. Don't talk to me about friendship. I should take you outside."
He grinned at me drunkenly. "You're a pacifist, remember?"
"That doesn't mean I can't threaten you," I told him. "It just means you're not required to take me seriously."
But he was taking me seriously, taking everything seriously. I could tell. "You don't love her as much as you should," he said, real tears in his eyes.
"How would you know?" William Henry Devereaux, Jr., said, dry-eyed.
"You don't," he insisted.
"Would it make you feel better if I promised to ravish her as soon as I get home?"
I mean, the situation was pretty absurd. Two middle-aged men-we were middle-aged even then-sitting in a bar in Railton, Pennsylvania, arguing about how much love was enough, how much more was deserved. The absurdity of it was lost on Teddy, however, and for a second I actually thought he was going to punch me. He had to know I was kidding him, but Teddy belongs to that vast majority who believe that love isn't something you kid about. I don't see how you could not kid about love and still claim to have a sense of humor.
Since that night, I'm the only one who makes reference to Teddy's confession. He's never retracted it, but the incident remains embarrassing. "I wish you had some feelings for June," he says now, smiling ruefully. "We could agree to a reciprocal yearning from afar."
"How old are you?" I ask him.
He's quiet for a moment. "Anyhow," he says finally. "The real reason I wanted to drive you home-"
"Oh, Christ," I say. "Here we go."
I know what's coming. For the last few months rumors have been running rampant about an impending purge at the university, one that would reach into the tenured ranks. If such a thing were to happen, virtually everyone in the English department would be vulnerable to dismissal. The news is reportedly being broken to department chairs individually in their year-end conferences with the campus executive officer. According to which rumors you listen to, the chairs are being either asked or required to draw up lists of faculty in their departments who might be considered expendable. Seniority is reportedly not a criterion.
"All right," I tell Teddy. "Give it to me. Who have you been talking to now?"
"Arnie Drenker over in Psychology."
"And you believe Arnie Drenker?" I ask. "He's certifiable."
"He swears he was ordered to make a list."
When I don't immediately respond to this, he takes his eyes off the road for a microsecond to look over at me. My right nostril, which has now swollen to the point where I can see it clearly in my peripheral vision, throbs under his scrutiny. "Why do you refuse to take the situation seriously?"
"Because it's April, Teddy," I explain. This is an old discussion. April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics, not that their normal paranoia is insufficient to ruin a perfectly fine day in any season. But April is always the worst. Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April, then executed over the summer, when we are dispersed. September is always too late to remedy the reduced merit raises, the slashed travel fund, the doubled price of the parking sticker that allows us to park in the Modern Languages lot. Rumors about severe budget cuts that will affect faculty have been rampant every April for the past five years, although this year's have been particularly persistent and virulent. Still, the fact is that every year the legislature has threatened deep cuts in higher education. And every year a high-powered education task force is sent to the capitol to lobby the legislature for increased spending. Every year accusations are leveled, editorials written. Every year the threatened budget cuts are implemented, then at the last fiscal moment money is found and the budget-most of it-restored. And every year I conclude what William of Occam (that first, great modern William, a William for his time and ours, all the William we will ever need, who gave to us his magnificent razor by which to gauge simple truth, who was exiled and relinquished his life that our academic sins might be forgiven) would have concluded-that there will be no faculty purge this year, just as there was none last year, just as there will be none next year. What there will probably be next year is more belt tightening, more denied sabbaticals, an extension of the hiring freeze, a reduced photocopy budget. What there will certainly be next year is another April, and another round of rumors.
Teddy steals another quick glance at me. "Do you have any idea what your colleagues are saying?"
"No," I say, then, "yes. I mean, I know my colleagues, so I can imagine what they're saying."
"They're saying your dismissing the rumors is pretty suspicious. They're wondering if you've made up a list."
From the Trade Paperback edition.