Friday, July 13, 2018

Review of Straight Man by Richard Russo (Verso, 1997)

William Henry Devereaux, Jr. has lived in the shadow of his famous father, a noted literary critic and philanderer, his whole life. He even followed him into academia and English Literature. There he has languished in a lower-tier university in a small town in the Pennsylvania rust belt, where he has remained faithful to his wife and his mother, and raised two kids. His one notable achievement was a single novel, published twenty years previously. He now finds himself as chair of a divided and divisive department at a time when large cuts in staff are muted. Unable to take himself, his colleagues or the university administration seriously, over the course of a week he careens through everything life can throw at him: suspected kidney stones, an irate set of staff, administrative scheming, strained friendships, the absence of his wife, the dissolution of his daughter’s marriage, and the return of his father, and to top it all off he threatens to kill a campus goose a day on live television unless he’s told the status of the department budget.

Straight Man tells the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr., an English professor and department chair working in a small, lower-tier university, and his mid-life crisis as he tackles a series of work and family issues over the course of a week. Many of these crises are self-made or made worse, for the most part because he acts as a jerk. It’s described on the cover blurb as ‘funny and tender’ and ‘uproarious’ and Devereaux considers himself to be a bit of a wit. At one point Devereaux reflects: “Rourke’s position regarding me never varies. Despite the fact that I try to make everything into a joke, I’m never funny.” I’m afraid I share Rourke’s view, that despite Russo steering Devereaux into a series of what should be comic situations, they failed to raise a smile. For the most part, this is to do with the character of Devereaux, who I found mostly tedious and dull, and the explication around the situation. Rather than being a lovable wise-ass, Devereaux is far too often irritating and tiresome and he would certainly drive me to distraction if he were my department chair. The plot is quite slow to get going, with a number of meanders, but picks up in pace, action and interest in the second half, and there are some nice observations about friendship, family and academic politics at times. Overall, a literary novel of academic life that just about sustains interest to the end.

1 comment:

George said...

I read STRAIGHT MAN when it was first published in 1997 and enjoyed it. Russo captures the College milieu convincingly. And this is a funny book.