Sunday, September 26, 2010

Straight Man (1997)

At first glance, Richard Russo's fourth novel (and the only one by him I know) promises to be all too familiar stuff. Our narrator William Henry Devereaux Jr. is an English prof at a state university in Pennsylvania. He is an interim chairman for the department, which is plunged into a budgetary crisis, and he himself is currently plunged into your basic mid-life crisis. Yes, all elements of one variety of today's most hackneyed literary fiction would seem to be in place: Academia, check. Middle-aged white male, check. Hysterically unraveling life, check. Sexual peccadilloes, imagined and otherwise, involving faculty, faculty spouses, and students alike, check check check. It's practically textbook. It goes deep into the weeds of college departmental politics, which even in my time as an undergrad I quickly sussed out as tedious, toxic, and the kind of thing to run away from as fast as you can. Our narrator comes with various health issues, and a complicated relationship with his father. It even gets into anxieties about real estate values. Yet for all that I found this novel to be compulsively readable, thoroughly entertaining, and a great read. For one thing, and it's the important thing, Russo would actually appear to be one of that rare breed of novelists who not only spins a good yarn but knows as well how to be funny, with wit and slapstick both (the title refers to the guy who never seems to get it in a comedy act rather than any kind of sexual orientation), desperately and effectively doing whatever it takes to get his laughs. That's a quality I can appreciate when it works, and here it does work, affording that most unusual of all reading experiences, the opportunity to actually laugh out loud. And as clichéd as its setting and various trappings may be, Russo evokes it all vividly and with any number of unexpected developments. It may be desperate in its headlong momentum but it's never sullen, nor self-pitying for even a moment, and it always seems to be perfectly and refreshingly aware of its own absurdity. Russo shows an ability to work with materials that have been previously abused and make you feel like he's got his arm around your shoulder, saying, "Stop me if you've heard this before but you're never going to believe this." And once in, you don't want to stop him. May as well read on to the end. This crazy circus is forged and resolved with a good deal of satisfying and often surprising zest.

In case it's not at the library.

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