TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 October 2015
"What ails people is never simple, and William of Occam, who provided mankind with a beacon of rationality by which to view the world of physical circumstance, knew better than to apply his razor to the irrational, where entities multiply like strands of a virus under a microscope"
Straight Man is the fourth novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, Richard Russo. William Henry Devereaux Jnr, (Hank) at almost fifty, is interim chairman of the English department at the (chronically underfunded) West Central Pennsylvania University in Railton. A certain week in April sees him enduring quite a variety of trials, both mental and physical. It all starts in a meeting where he is nasally mangled by a colleague. Or does it? Perhaps his absent father has had more influence that he admits. Russo subjects his protagonist to bouts of overactive imagination, the suspicions and petty politics of colleagues, his students' decided lack of promise, his daughter's marital problems, a tempting flirtation with a younger woman, and an irritating (and possibly worrying) deterioration in the function of a certain organ. Ducks, geese, a TV news crew, the local jail, a hot tub, peaches and their pits, a dog called Occam and a missing ceiling tile complete the picture.
Hank holds his colleagues in disdain ("You know the kind of company I keep. If it weren't for erroneous conclusions, these people would never arrive at any at all"), is critical of his friends ("He misses all the details than even an out-of-practice storyteller like me would not only mention but place in the foreground. He's like a tone-deaf man trying to sing, sliding between notes, tapping his foot arhythmically, hoping his exuberance will make up for not bothering to establish a key"), and loves the wife who knows him entirely too well ("Promise me you'll act surprised" is one of Lily's favourite, supposedly harmless pretences.........."It hurts my feelings to pretend to be this dumb," I tell my wife. "Don't you care what people think of me?" But she just smiles. "They won't notice," she always explains. "It'll blend in with all the times you're genuinely slow.")
He knows his own weaknesses ("I try to tell myself it's nothing but decent affection I feel for her, but the truth is, it doesn't feel entirely decent. She's too lovely a woman for this to be decent affection, though it's probably not exactly indecent either. Is there a state more or less halfway between decency and indecency? Is there a name for such a realm? The Kingdom of Cowardice? The Fiefdom of Altruism? The Grove of Academe?") and is well aware of his flaws ("I use my own solitude to consider what may well be my worst character flaw, the fact that in the face of life's seriousness, its pettiness, its tragedy, its lack of coherent meaning, my spirits are far too easily restored")
This is a book filled with humour, some of it quite dark, and much of it very dry; it will have readers grinning, chuckling and laughing out loud, so is perhaps not a book to read in public. Russo gives Hank some succinct and insightful observations: "What I suspect is that this brandy is intended to brace me for unpleasantness, and that any brandy used for this purpose may be imbued with medicinal bitterness if you suspect the truth". He also allows Hank to display his literary talent in the form of descriptive prose: "Properly medicated, Yolanda felt becalmed on a flat lake where others nearby were sailing about merrily, wind snapping in their sails......Skipping her medication caused the sails of her own small craft to billow like the others, allowed her to join in the merriment, tacking in and out among the other revelers, the wind in her hair and her clothing".
Fans of Russo's earlier books will not be disappointed with Straight Man; readers new to his work will want to seek out more works by this talented author. Clever and brilliantly funny.