Richard Russo,
Straight Man
(Random House, 1997)

By now, I have read a couple of novels by Richard Russo, a favorite author of mine in recent times. Whether it's Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs, the books I'm familiar with present similar plot devices that let the reader know they are for sure reading a Russo. For instance, his stories feature a middle-aged man reevaluating the state of his life -- concerning marital, parental, emotional or professional problems (or an eclectic mix of two or more) -- all while plopped in a crumbling, once-great fictional town somewhere in the Northeast. Oftentimes the state of the town more or less matches the personal condition of the lead male character, who narrates Russo's story in first-person.

The same can be said of Straight Man, my third Russo. Except this time, though the story yet again grows more serious with each turning page, Straight Man is considerably very funny, namely in its lead character, William Henry "Hank" Devereaux Jr., an arrogant son of a gun who can kinda get away with saying whatever he wants to his family and colleagues.

Here Hank, for no particular reason, becomes the interim chairman of the English department at a fictional Pennsylvania university he has taught at for many years. Because he was nominated for the post and really isn't the ideal candidate (in most eyes) for the job, task forces, meetings and other ways of going about business have been set up to name his successor -- but to no avail. The department is so dysfunctional and the college as a whole is so badly underfunded that the fine folks involved can't seem to ever get moving on progress towards a new English chair.

At the same time this main action starts rolling -- and believe me, it gets pretty zany (strictly speaking in Hank's semiserious threat to execute a goose on live television) -- the professor also must come to terms with a wife being interviewed for a position outside the town, a colleague or two at the college who may indeed want to jump his bones, a daughter who runs into troubles with her main squeeze and a father he tries to reconnect with after a 10-year absence. Oh, he's also suffering from what Hank believes to be some sort of body function failure. With Straight Man taking place in about the span of a week, Russo's got a lot of ground to cover in close to 400 pages.

Granted this one is not my favorite Russo -- Straight Man actually ranks lower than both of my previous outings with the author -- the work is still a considerable achievement and one I'd probably recommend to others, and certainly to people already familiar with Russo's stories.

review by
Eric Hughes

21 February 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new