Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #62: Straight Man by Richard Russo
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry during the reading of Straight Man, and sometimes I did both. Russo is famous as the author of novels about ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary little American towns, and yet there is nothing ordinary about his writing or his stories. He has a knack for delving into the mundane and finding both the humor and the tragedy in life, of finding the nuggets in all of our lives that make them simultaneously commonplace and special.
Straight Man is about William Henry Devereaux, Jr., an irreverent middle-aged professor at an underfunded Pennsylvania university who is serving as temporary chairman of a fractious English department facing imminent cutbacks. Devereaux has been teaching for decades, and is entering a mid-life crisis characterized by fear of cancer, fear of losing the wife he loves, fear of losing his job and fear of staying at his job. He is beset by feelings of “semi-lust” for several of the women in his life, fantasies about his wife having an affair, the deterioration of his daughter’s marriage, ongoing feuds with fellow professors, an inability to pee, and unresolved hatred for his father, an academic luminary who abandoned him and his mother years earlier.
Devereaux wrote one novel decades earlier, and has since been unable to produce another, settling instead for writing witty columns for the local paper and teaching creative writing classes. He has just sent his secretary’s short stories off to his literary agent as a favor, and they immediately got bought by a publisher. He watches the growing furor of department politics over who gets to keep their jobs and who will get axed, and wants nothing to do with it, but is nonetheless drawn into the eye of the storm. Ultimately, Straight Man is a novel about that painful moment that comes to us all in middle age, where we wonder who we have become, what we have achieved, and ask ourselves “is that all there is?” Russo treats this universal question with both the loving poignancy and sidesplitting comedy it fully deserves.