Straight Man by Richard Russo is a my second book by this author. A few years ago I read and enjoyed Bridge of Sighs but not so much that I rushed to buy another. Then I noticed Straight Man on Yvette's 5 Best Books: Academia post about the school/campus novel and I'm so glad I bought it.
Yvette quotes from Russo's own website:
During one tortuous week, Hank Devereaux, head of the English department at the state university in Railton, Pennsylvania, has his nose slashed by a feminist poet, finds his secretary is a better writer than he is, suspects his wife is having an affair, threatens wild fowl, and confronts his father.
Straight Man is quietly hilarious. When his wife goes away for the weekend, after the nose slashing by the feminist poet, Hank is warned that in her absence his erratic and humorously confrontational behaviour is likely to end up with him in hospital or jail. It is not really introducing spoilers to say that he manages both. He also manages to wet himself at work, spend the evening in a hot tub with a TV reporter, and find himself reduced to hiding in the filthy roof space to avoid a meeting.
Hank finds everything both depressing and darkly amusing. He is driven by Ockham's razor to reduce everything to its most simplistic terms, regardless of common sense, causing him to counter colleagues' remarks with ones both of genius and witlessness. He claims the position most contested in his department is that of the straight man. To put an English twist on it, he sees it as though they all want to be Ernie Wise to his Eric Morecambe, feeding him lines to be funny. The truth of course is rather more complex.
Hank seems unable to see people in three dimensions. To continue the Morecambe and Wise analogy (sorry to non-UK readers on whom this reference might be lost), he sees the other guy only in terms of his, "short, fat, hairy legs," and does the equivalent of insisting out loud that, "you can't see the join", whilst pointing out a colleague's overt psychological failings. Provoking feminist poets is only the beginning.
There are some wonderful cameo roles for English department 'types' from the male feminist who has no books and produces revisionist tomes about sitcoms, to the drunkard, the incompetent, the philanderer, and more. Hank himself is only Head of Department because everyone thought he was too incompetent to cause much trouble:
No one for an instant considered the possibility that I would do anything. No one imagined I could locate the necessary forms to do anything. I am regarded throughout the university as a militant procedural incompetent.
However he has an efficent secretary: Rachel has the forms and knows how to use them! His colleagues are now terrified and rebellion is afoot.
Russo's skill in constructing this engaging first person narrative, is in managing to create three dimensional characters through the narrowing and confused prism of Hank's increasingly paranoid mind. He wilfully sees just the "short fat hairy legs", but somehow through his narrative we see so much more.
Straight Man reminds me a lot of David Lodge's novels: funny, warm, exasperating, character driven. But it manages to be both darker and lighter than Lodge's work. It is funny, very funny, but not so eye wateringly so as some of those Lodge turns about the University of Rummidge. It feels more spacious, you feel less confined by the campus and more aware of the world. It is also sadder, and contains more quiet reflection. I particularly liked the portrayals of Hank's relationships with both his parents, his famous self-obscessed writer-father and his blinkered, under-appreciated, put-upon mother who now puts on others in her turn. These scenes, particularly those involving the dogs that bookend the novel, add depth to a work that could have been glib in other hands.
Random House's website describes Straight Man as Russo's "characteristic high-wire walk between hilarity and heartbreak," but I think that does the novel a disservice. Straight Man does much more than emotionally manipulate you. It actually makes you think.
A note on links and and on buying new books: I no longer add new links to Amazon on this site. The link in the first paragraph is a non-affilate link to the UK publisher. I can of course sell you a copy of the new book myself - RRP which is £8.99 at time of writing and post free within the UK (or plus £4 Europe; £6.50 Rest of World). Just email me to order a copy. Book groups: please enquire for discounts on 8 or more copies.