Straight Man: A Novel

Straight Man: A Novel

by Richard Russo

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Hilarious and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down, Straight Man follows Hank Devereaux through one very bad week in this novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo.
William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt.  Devereaux's reluctance is partly rooted in his character--he is a born anarchist--and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans.  

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television.  All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions.  In short, Straight Man is classic Russo—side-splitting, poignant, compassionate, and unforgettable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307809940
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/09/2011
Series: Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,381
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Richard Russo is the author of eight novels; two collections of stories; and Elsewhere, a memoir. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which like Nobody’s Fool was adapted to film, in a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries.


Gloversville, New York

Date of Birth:

July 15, 1949

Place of Birth:

Johnstown, New York


B.A., University of Arizona, 1967; Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1979; M.F.A., University of Arizona, 1980

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

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 him that 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."

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Straight Man 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 85 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With all due respect to the Pulitzer people, I think this is better even than Empire Falls -- and I loved EF immensely. Straight Man is hysterical, warm, gripping and intelligent from the first page to the last. The constant wit and sarcastic edge make "Hank" Russo's best lead character ever. Anyone who has ever taught, or has aspirations to write a book, will not be able to put this book down until they are done with it. This book hasn't gotten the hype of others, but I would call it my best read of the year, by far.
Guest More than 1 year ago
You don't have to be in academia to appreciate this sly take on life at a mediocre liberal arts college. The unexpected twists and turns and the outrageous and crisp dialogue make this book so funny I was literally laughing out loud while reading it, whether alone on my couch or on a crowded bus. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of my all time favorite books. It is dry, witty, and extremely well-written. I found myself laughing uncontrollably at its artful humor. You cannot help but love each character - as is the case in most of Russo's books.
AshleyReader More than 1 year ago
Russo's "Straight Man" is clearly written by a man who can write. The reading itself was a pleasure. The story was amusing, if at times slow, and was a wonderful combination of funny and serious. There was nothing silly, over the top, or shocking about the humor in Russo's work. The main character is endearing and honest and the supporting characters are equally entertaining - and for the most served only in appropriately sized portions; the most over-the-top characters make brief appearances, so it's nice to see them again later, rather than repetitive or irritating. A great read for anyone who has had zany professors (as many of them are), enjoys reading, and can handle a long read - the length is my only criticism, but I only felt that the book was too long for about 5 chapters in the middle. Once the story picked up again, I was glad to have more to read ahead.
JohnW745 More than 1 year ago
This book is hands down one the best reads of my post-high school career. It is my opinon that Richard Russo is a quick-witted, sarcastic, and dry author, wich makes makes for a great book that is exceptionally hilarious. After a while i found myself rooting for the antagonist in story becasue i couldn't help but to fall in love with ALL characters. Its seems that Russo used some personal expeirence in his writing wich helped me connect to the characters to better understand their point of view. In other words, this book was real, as in the personalities put into the characters & structure of this story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was better than Empire Falls. I found myself laughing out loud several times, and I couldn't put it down. I was sorry to have it end!
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
"What ails people is never simple, and William of Occam, who provided mankind with a beacon of rationality by which to view the world of physical circumstance, knew better than to apply his razor to the irrational, where entities multiply like strands of a virus under a microscope" Straight Man is the fourth novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, Richard Russo. William Henry Devereaux Jnr, (Hank) at almost fifty, is interim chairman of the English department at the (chronically underfunded) West Central Pennsylvania University in Railton. A certain week in April sees him enduring quite a variety of trials, both mental and physical. It all starts in a meeting where he is nasally mangled by a colleague. Or does it? Perhaps his absent father has had more influence that he admits. Russo subjects his protagonist to bouts of overactive imagination, the suspicions and petty politics of colleagues, his students' decided lack of promise, his daughter's marital problems, a tempting flirtation with a younger woman, and an irritating (and possibly worrying) deterioration in the function of a certain organ. Ducks, geese, a TV news crew, the local jail, a hot tub, peaches and their pits, a dog called Occam and a missing ceiling tile complete the picture. Hank holds his colleagues in disdain ("You know the kind of company I keep. If it weren't for erroneous conclusions, these people would never arrive at any at all"), is critical of his friends ("He misses all the details than even an out-of-practice storyteller like me would not only mention but place in the foreground. He's like a tone-deaf man trying to sing, sliding between notes, tapping his foot arhythmically, hoping his exuberance will make up for not bothering to establish a key"), and loves the wife who knows him entirely too well ("Promise me you'll act surprised" is one of Lily's favourite, supposedly harmless pretences.........."It hurts my feelings to pretend to be this dumb," I tell my wife. "Don't you care what people think of me?" But she just smiles. "They won't notice," she always explains. "It'll blend in with all the times you're genuinely slow.") He knows his own weaknesses ("I try to tell myself it's nothing but decent affection I feel for her, but the truth is, it doesn't feel entirely decent. She's too lovely a woman for this to be decent affection, though it's probably not exactly indecent either. Is there a state more or less halfway between decency and indecency? Is there a name for such a realm? The Kingdom of Cowardice? The Fiefdom of Altruism? The Grove of Academe?") and is well aware of his flaws ("I use my own solitude to consider what may well be my worst character flaw, the fact that in the face of life's seriousness, its pettiness, its tragedy, its lack of coherent meaning, my spirits are far too easily restored") This is a book filled with humour, some of it quite dark, and much of it very dry; it will have readers grinning, chuckling and laughing out loud, so is perhaps not a book to read in public. Russo gives Hank some succinct and insightful observations: "What I suspect is that this brandy is intended to brace me for unpleasantness, and that any brandy used for this purpose may be imbued with medicinal bitterness if you suspect the truth". He also allows Hank to display his literary talent in the form of descriptive prose: "Properly medicated, Yolanda felt becalmed on a flat lake where others nearby were sailing about merrily, wind snapping
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this and couldn't put it down. Very funny, well written, intriguing story and wonderfully formed characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books ever. I laughed so much! It manages to be ironic, over-the-top, and true to life (amazing accomplishment). Russo is one of my favorite writers and this book is one of his best.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great humor and well written.
Maertel More than 1 year ago
... what is the point of bookending the story with dog killings, the final one really gratuitous? None of the main characters feel the losses deeply, nor do any of them have any kind of compassionate reaction to the hanging of a beautiful bird in the middle of a college campus. And, yes, it would have been good to have fewer silly pee incidents and a lot more character revelations, notably for dear old Dad, Gracie, and Lily.
adabelle22 More than 1 year ago
With hard economic times on hitting higher education, this book was almost too real to be true. Each character could be on any given campus across the nation. The personal and professional story line for the main character was so likeable and believeable. Great book for any liberal arts department personnel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ALl I can say is this is one of the funniest books I've EVER read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of my favorite books! I work in academia - this had me laughing in acknowledgement and recognition. Well done!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i have a good sense of humor, i like it all, raunchy stuff stupid stuff and this book has it all
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book had me laughing out loud...with its combination of characters and Hank's thoughts and fantasies. A book about relationships in our jobs and families well worth the read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing is so crisp and believable I recognized all the characters. I laughed out loud a number of times reading this on a 12 hour plane ride. I am not a professor and am not a literature student, but the book author brought me into that world. Alternating between introspective and simply hilarious it was a great story. I am reading Empire Falls starting today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Funny,great characters,observant and just fun to read.....if you ever been to college or a life in academia an interesting look into life at a university.
pugterranian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A week in the life of an English prof at a small "badly under-funded college" in rural PA. One of the funniest novels set in academia that you'll ever read. If you liked Jane Smiley's Moo, Zadie Smith's On Beauty or David Lodge's Changing Places (to pick just one), Straight Man won¿'t disappoint. I really fell in love with these characters and, like the cliché says, did not want it to end. Expect guffawing out loud with this one so you may want to avoid reading it in public, or next to a sleeping loved one.
polutropos on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book. I laughed out loud repeatedly throughout the first half, and in the second half became more and more convinced by the universality of Hank's suffering. It is a wise book about much more than university campus shenanigans. It is about sons and mothers, sons and fathers, the nature of friendship, about who we really are and what we really stand for, about honour under fire. Here is a wonderful mother-son scene:¿The afternoon my mother crept noiselessly down the cellar stairs instead of calling to me as she usually did, I had taken a coil of rope, climbed onto a chair, and tied a knot onto one of the pipes that formed a complex grid running along the ceiling of the cellar. The moment before I turned around and saw her, I had been testing the rope by yanking on it with both hands, to see if the knot would stay tied, if the pipe would hold my weight. To another kid I would have looked like I was about to swing, Tarzan-like, from one imaginary tree to another, but at the moment our eyes met, I knew this was not the conclusion my mother had come to, and I let loose an explosion of violent grief I had not known until that very moment I possessed. How did I get from the chair I was standing on and into her arms? How did I know to go there, know that she would not be angry? There was no way to explain to my mother what I didn¿t fully comprehend myself ¿ that I didn¿t want my life to end, rather just to know that the pipe would hold me if I needed it to later, if things got worse, if they became unbearable. (322)Another of my favourite scenes involves his father, guilt, and Dickens. And there are so many wonderful scenes. I have a moratorium on book-buying. This book. overcame it. A library copy is not enough. I bought it.
sakismom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Russo's an excellent writer - I had read this a few years ago & re-read it for my book discussion group. Takes place on the campus of a mediocre college in Pennsylvania. Protagonist is a wise-cracking English professor involved in the petty backstabbing of academia politics. Very funny, but serious themes.Read 5/2000
AmyBenevento on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS1. Why do so many of the faculty appear to "hate" Hank?2. Why does Hank's wife Lily no longer appreciate Hank's sense of humor?3. When stressed, have you ever spoken your thoughts....out loud without knowing it?4. Why are the others angry at Hank for not selling his adjacent lot?5. Why was Hank's student Blaire so awkward (pg. 267)?6. When hiding in the ceiling, did you think Hank would fall from the rafters?7. Leo apparently killed the duck. How was he discovered?8. What ailment did Hank have?9. Should Hank have accepted his position as dean?10. Would `The Goose Slayer' have been a better title?11. Why did Hank's mother see Mr. Purty?12. Does Hank have strong morals?13. Why are Hank's wife and mother worried about him early on?......What symptoms does he show?14. Hank has fantasies of seeing Lily with other men.......Do these fantasies represent his fears or his desires?15. Why does Russo call the first portion of the novel ¿Occam's Razor¿?16. Why does Hank's father cry when he confesses that he may've misjudged Dickens?17. Why the title? (page 106).....¿In English depts, the most serious competition is for the role of SM.¿
NJanzen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I 'discovered' Richard Russo at the GetLit! Festival in Spokane in April of 2010. I bought Straight Man and found it to contain deeply developed and interesting characters and a plot I was intrigued by. I liked the touches of realistic humor in everyone's life and their idiosyncrasies that were unique but believable ("I need to help you with this appointment? Can I leave now? I'm happy?"). I am working on Empire Falls and already sense the same level of detail and am exciting to live with these characters in this strange little East Coast city for the next few weeks.
Pferdina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story was interesting and certainly had several humorous points. I found it extremely male in perspective (not strange, since the main character is male), so maybe I really didn't get it because I am female. Although described to me as a satirical novel about academic life, there really wasn't much of the academic here, unless the life of an English professor is a lot different from my experience. Mostly, this was a book about friendship and growing up. Sure, there were dramatic events on campus, which are caricatures of the usual incidents of day-to-day life of the university. It just did not feel to me as if the campus was very important. This story could almost have been told for a man of any profession: any man who dreams of sex with women he knows, has unresolved issues with his parents and children, and fears about becoming old and useless.
nbsp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I laughed aloud - a once every ten books event. Main character is Wm. Henry Devereaux, Jr., acting English Dept. chairman at W. Central Pa. University. Novel encapsulates a week of crises in his life that made me wonder at how much we humans can endure. Another wonder is the wry humor that Hank sustains throughout.