Straight Man by Richard Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"The world is divided between kids who grow up wanting to be their parents and those like us, who grow up wanting to be anything but. Neither group ever succeeds."
Either senile dementia has already softened my brain or Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997) is really a very good novel. A friend has recommended it saying "Great story! And very funny!" I am a sucker for funny and will even tolerate a "great story" in a novel as long as the writing is good and funny. Mr. Russo's writing is hilarious and the story is just a wrapping in which the author serves the reader quite some bits of wisdom. Not only is the novel an entertaining read but also food for thought for days and weeks.
This is a "campus novel" whose protagonist, 49-year-old William Henry Devereux Jr. (WHDJ from now on) is a professor of English, an interim chair of a deeply divided and completely dysfunctional department at a backwater public school, West Central Pennsylvania University. The school is located in a small town affected by unemployment and general blight. The specter of imminent high-education spending cuts looms in the background and there are insistent rumors that even tenured faculty will be laid off. Of course, the author exaggerates all symptoms to almost a point of absurd, but - as a university professor, albeit in a different field and in a department whose members love each other dearly (just in case my chair and my dean are reading this) - I can vouch that everything described by the author MIGHT happen, under the right circumstances. The campus climate, the faculty language with its mandatory phrases (like the "orshee" bit), the groupthink behaviors, the delusions of grandeur intermingled with fear are accurately depicted.
The plot is centered on various problems plaguing Prof. WHDJ: in addition to having to deal with his department and his superiors, he is facing numerous personal problems that involve his father (WHD Sr., an English professor of national renown), his daughter, his colleagues, his students, and his health. And the only weapon he wields is the Occam razor. Climactic events in the plot include the now famous goose incident: the accompanying speech that will remind the geezers of the equally famous "I am not going to take it anymore" scene from the 1970s movie Network sounds natural and plausible. Later in the novel, a traumatic incident in the area of human physiology is a source of hilarity as well.
Hilarity is always good but deep down there Straight Man really is a serious book. Every reader will likely find something different, fitting their individual beliefs, foibles, and fears: to me the most thought-provoking issue is the relationship between parents and their grown-up children and its roots in childhood. So many people's lives are destroyed by parents who either cared too much or not enough or by children who either hated their parents or hated themselves for failing in replicate their successes. There is a tremendously moving passage where a narrow-minded, bigoted father laments that his educated daughter is so different from him: "Where did I go wrong, little girl?" says he. Indeed, where? He gave her all his love and she is ashamed of him.
Another strength of the novel is the precise observation and diagnosis of ritualized behaviors: in academia, in marriage, in child-parent relationships, and in everyday life. And the fakeness of this all where everybody is permanently play-acting and those who can best play-act sincerity and spontaneity are the winners.
Great title! Great novel! Why not five stars then? I am not exactly sure. Probably because the plot is custom-made to the reader's satisfaction. The ending is too neat, too traditional in tying up all loose ends.
Four and a half stars.
Four wise and witty quotes:
"[...] it's hard to remain distinguished among people who know you."
"[...] one of the deepest purposes of intellectual sophistication is to provide distance between us and our most disturbing personal truths and gnawing fears."
"My colleagues are academics. They indulge paranoid fantasies for the same reason dogs lick their own testicles."
"A liberal arts dean in a good mood is a potentially dangerous thing. It suggests a world different from the one we know. One where any damn thing can happen."
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