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4.7 out of 5 stars
Straight Man
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 July 2012
This was my first Richard Russo book. I've enjoyed other books set in academia, from Bradbury's The History Man to Chabon's Wonder Boys, and this is worthy of its place in such exalted company.
It reminded me quite a lot of Wonder Boys at times, with its typical, if not stereotypical, middle-aged, middle-life-crisis professor getting into some awkward situations, weird and semi-dangerous students and dysfunctional, alcoholic faculty members. But I'm not saying this just goes over the same ground. It's its own book, with its own style.
I thought the first chapter was pretty poor to be honest though, and hardly a warm welcome the rest of the book. For some reason I noticed the small type and narrow margins and this put me off a bit. But it's well worth sticking with.
Because Russo creates a very believable world, full of believable characters who speak with believable voices. And he's very good at giving each character their own voice. I always appreciate when an author does this well and Russo does it well. Characters like Tony Coniglia, the New Yorker, is vivid and funny; he comes alive on the page, as does the narrator Hank's father-in-law who gets a tour-de-force monologue towards the end that's a treat to read. If you like doing voices in your head when you read, you'll have plenty of material to draw from.
Hank, the narrator, is more low key, probably sensibly, but you warm to him despite his many faults and occasionally irritating mannerisms (the `but I can play that role' line soon wears thin, as does his habit of referring to himself in the third person).
Russo is the master of sowing the seeds of future storylines. You don't entirely realise it's happening early on in the book but later they all blossom one by one and keep the story going when it might otherwise be flagging.
There are plenty of Russo's thoughts on life that men of a certain age will find very apt too, even if you're not going through quite the crisis Hank's going through.
Most of this works to great comic effect, but is also frank and true, and not boring as you might imagine a story about a middle-aged white academic might be.
I found the writing, especially in the first half of the book, a bit uneven. You get chapters that dazzle you with their brilliance, but chapters that seem more boiler plate. This is not a huge problem, but I did think it from time to time. And occasionally he goes slightly beyond subtle, and I fear it's these scenes that will have potential movie-makers rubbing their hands at the thought of some third-rate actor laying it on even thicker. Makes me think I might not like a film version of this novel because most directors would try to intensify everything when in fact some of it would benefit from being toned down. I'm thinking of scenes like the crucial central scene with the goose and the subsequent debauchery: Russo just over-eggs the pudding here for me, and although I got over it, I felt detached from this part of the book as a result. It would have served the story just as well if this had been downplayed a bit instead of trying, and slightly failing, to turn it into a major set piece. And there's a later scene in a restaurant that smacked of playing to an audience that likes the volume turned up a bit too loud. The scene when Hank hides in the ceiling is, on the other hand, comic genius.
Minor gripes notwithstanding, I romped through this book and found it to be solid, intelligent, funny and involving. I'm tempted to give some of his other work a try now.
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on 12 September 2013
Straight Man is a very funny novel yet an extremely poignant story that shows a high degree of sensitivity to the human condition. The setting is a second or third level state university in Pennsylvania in the 1990s, in April toward the end of the academic year. Henry (Hank) Devereux, Jr. is an English professor and interim chair of his department and is turning 50. A delay in the university's budget from the legislature has exacerbated the conflicts within his dysfunctional department and put Hank in the uncomfortable position of providing the administration with a list of faculty to fire. These conflicts are amplified by a developing mid-life crisis which leads him to question his relationship with his wife, his two adult daughters, his distinguished and rather overbearing academic parents, and particularly the worth of his own academic career.

The two threads of this novel are the window that it provides on academic life and the second window that it opens on the travails - mental, emotional and physical - of reaching middle age. Both are approached through humor and biting satire, but with an element of tenderness for both the individuals and institutions that are the objects of Hank's concerns. Henry Devereux, Jr., himself, is a very well-crafted character - someone you will likely feel that you know intimately by the end of the novel.

Straight Man is a good example of a modern `campus novel' Its humor and elegant prose resonate with that of Changing Places, by David Lodge, and The History Man, by Malcolm Bradbury - both late 1960s/early 1970s representatives of this genre. Its humor and trenchant portrayal of academic characters and politics also echo with Lorenzostein, by Mary Smetley, a more recent magical-realistic treatment of these issues in academia in the 1980s and 1990s.

A must read for anyone interested in the `campus novel' genre and for those readers who would enjoy a humorous, but sensitive, treatment of mid-life issues.
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on 1 November 2015
By the time I had reached the second chapter I realised I had already read that book a few years ago but had failed to review it and had also failed to remember anything outside the campus plot( who will they fire, when and how?). This failure to remember I had already read the novel explains why I could never go for 5 stars. It is very well written, with clever and funny moments but the plot is also rather thin which explains how forgetable the story is. I reread the whole thing since I hadn't a clue how it developed and how it ended. It wasn't unpleasant either and I couldn't understand why I hadn't memorised the very funny beginning, the story of Hank's first ever dog. That was really well-done and cleverly woven into a finale that entertained me not a little. This sweet and sour book evokes in the reader I am, the same feelings I have for its main character, a mixture of affection, empathy mingled with a good measure of exasperation.. Because Hank is clearly a very exasperating man, perhaps more so to a female reader than to a male one.The novel is however definitely worth a read. The doings at this small Pennsylvania campus are sure to amuse you even if there is no great lesson to be learnt there. We do indeed grow aggravating to those who have worked with us for a very long time and when people stop to surprise you, the predictable ways in which they behave, think and react does indeed begin to bore and stifle you. Not everybody can be great... especially in the long term.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 February 2014
It is easy to pigeon-hole this novel as yet another in the stream of university-based satires. Malcolm Bradbury, with the extremely important and seriously underestimated “The History Man”, seems to me the outstanding contribution to this field in that it looks forward to the retreat from reason and the moral chaos that has infiltrated all higher education in the humanities in the western world. (See Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom et al). From Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim” through David Lodge, Jane Smiley and others, good writers have found fertile stimulus for imaginative writing and particularly humour, in this field. The revived interest in John Williams’ “Stoner” and Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety”, both concerned in part at least with University English Faculties, show interest in the genre is not waning.

Although Russo’s novel never moves outside the campus world, which is the entirety of its setting, the humorous critique of targets within academia already dealt with in many of its predecessors, is far from the heart of the book. That seems to me to lie in the character of Henry Devereaux and his quirky take on his job, his colleagues and the larger issues of human relationships, youth, age and not least that hinterland between the two that he and other key characters inhabit. Undeniably the book is funny, though the humour is very much in the same key throughout, which made this reader at least feel the novel to be longer than its actual length. Where for me the novel most especially scores is in its tone, one of sustained understatement and gentleness, which comes from a larger, if elusive, perspective on life that none of the other characters really grasp. An engaging and humane novel fed by a depth of human sympathy that Stegner’s novel for example seems never to approach.
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on 24 September 2011
This is quite possibly the funniest novel I've ever read!

OK, it probably does help to be one of those unfortunates who has insider knowledge of the grim comedy that is the politics of academia. I cannot honestly say for sure, being a recipient of said knowledge. Anyway, Russo does a great job of decanting the ridiculous protocol of academic heirarchies, such that every character is, in some way, part of a never ending HR intrigue. Even if you're a fortunate innocent, this book is certain to have you howling with laughter. Truth is it's been years since any book actually made me laugh out loud. Straight Man had me falling out of my armchair.

But this is no simple joke a minute text. Chock full of self-aware pathos, Hank, the central character, is almost certainly one of the great anti-heroes of contemporary American literature. It is impossible not to warm to him and his response to the ridiculous world he inhabits.

For anyone who's read Russo's other books, it will come as no surprise to enter a literary world in which a precise economy has an extraordinary capacity to express so much depth. Russo is certainly one of America's greatest authors. But this particular book is treated as though somehow out of character, as though he's strayed into the wrong territory.

Such a shame to take this view. Because Straight Man really is a spectacular achievement.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 March 2012
Richard Russo's 1997 novel Straight Man is his fourth novel and, as with much of his work, focuses around a small town American community, tracing the lives, loves and complex interpersonal relationships existing between his chosen protagonists. The novel tells the story of a group of academics, the main focus of which is soon-to-be-fifty year-old William 'Hank' Devereaux Jnr., the chair of the college English department, and Russo's intimate novel (no doubt) draws extensively from his own earlier career as a college lecturer.

As in Russo's other books, he skilfully and vividly describes his cast of characters, exposing their foibles and conceits, whilst throughout making typically brilliant use of his wry sense of humour. Lead character Hank is struggling to make sense of his own ambivalent academic ambitions, a dilemma made all the more challenging by the imminent need to make some controversial college staff cuts. Russo paints a subtle and perceptive picture of Hank's frustrating relationships with his closest family (wife, daughter, mother, father), together with various romantic temptations he is battling at work. But whilst Russo's story does contain some unsavoury characters and themes of deception, guilt and selfish ambition, what shines through in the writing is Russo's overriding humanity.

For me, Russo is one of the best American authors of his generation. When compared with two of my other favourite contemporaries of his - I regard him as less sophisticated, but generally more readable, than Philip Roth, and less inventive, but with more obviously appealing (and funny) narratives, than Paul Auster. Whilst Straight Man probably does not quite reach the literary heights of some of his other works such as Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs, it is an extremely enjoyable, and recommended, read.
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on 18 September 2009
This has to be the best novel I have read in some time. It is funny, literary, intelligent and tender. William Henry Devereaux Jr is a tenured professor of English in a small town college on the eastern seaboard of the United States. He is happily married to Lily and has two grown-up daughters. The novel concerns the politics and absurdities of academic life.

Henry is fun. He is coming up to 50 but he has never really reached the stage where age has hampered his sense of the ridiculous and neither has it much got at his sense of honour. There is no false dignity in Henry, however, and he is ready to mix things with the best of them. The college itself thrives on the sense of insecurity it can induce in its teaching staff. Henry is currently the Chair of the English faculty and this small area of power has led to a prickly understanding of the ridiculous lengths most of the others will go to in order to ensure their tenure continues. There is much political manoeuvring, to which Henry is not quite immune.

This book is very funny and is written with gentle irony and understanding. It is lovely in its way - full of insight with a cast of marvellous characters, few of whom are keeping their heads above water in the killing fields of academe. Full of incident, full of grace, full of laughter and life.
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on 27 February 2017
Office politics is always entertaining to outsiders and particularly when the job for life contracts in a university mean people rarely leave and their petty rivalries with colleagues go on for decades. If you've ever worked with academics, you will recognise many of the characters. If not, this will give you a great insight into the life of a department chair as he tries to manage a department full of selfish, overpaid and hilariously entertaining middle aged lecturers!
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on 4 July 2016
Not as much fun as 'Empire Falls' or 'The Old Cape Magic' - still interesting but not the best work of this strong writer.
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