Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book [Tuesday]!: Straight Man, by Richard Russo

Richard Russo has some kind of character magic. Every one of the people populating his books somehow manage to be true-to-life copies of someone you know at the same time that they are universal representations of the demographics to which they belong. This was the case in his exceptional portrait of small town life, Empire Falls, and he does the same for academe and it's bizarre, brilliant inhabitants in Straight Man. I'm still getting to know my colleagues and teachers at Boston University, but I was lucky enough to get to know my professors at Assumption College very well. As I read Straight Man, I couldn't help but slot in my professors to the various actors' roles, while marveling at the goofy uniqueness of the people Russo had created. I was particularly amused by one key similarity of location; Assumption has this duck pond, full of spoiled ducks and geese (who are taken a warm, cushy location over the winter and returned to the pond on Duck Day, when they waddle down a red carpet and everyone has cookies. Assumption never met an occasion it wouldn't celebrate with cookies), as did the college in Straight Man. You can imagine my juvenile delight when the main character, Professor William Henry Devereaux, throttles one of the geese while on live TV and threatens to kill a duck a day until he gets his budget, leaving the goose with a bad attitude and a tiny, goofy neck brace.

Straight Man is a great book for fledgling academics, as both an enticement towards and warning from the field. It is a vicious portrait of departmental warfare, where all involved are armed with pettiness honed to a razor-sharp edge over years of disappointment. Everyone in a position of power only holds it in theory and is crippled by the machinations of some other vaguely empowered individual further up the food chain. Everyone has an agenda, and those agendas are overlaid with some intensely irritating and quintessentially academic traits - hyper-political-correctness, "I am an ARTISTE!" posturing, chronic ABDism, terminal fussiness. But in Russo's hands, you can also see the charm of these people, and you understand why they would keep you in the field even as they moved you to run screaming from the department. They all mean well, in their own socially crippled way. With education in the decaying state it's in today, it can be hard to imagine why anyone would turn to the life of the mind - and you could be excused for wondering if education, even at the college level, still has anything to do with the life of the mind - but Straight Man and its wonderful cast of characters gives you an idea why.

Russo's books are never just about the narrative thread. There is so much going on in Straight Man. Devereaux is a man struggling to find his own identity in academe. He compares himself to his father while trying to carve out his own identity. He wrestles with his marriage and his relationship to his daughter and son-in-law. More than anything, this is a story about getting older and the changes that come along with it. The relationships in the book are just so wonderfully genuine and rich - not perfect, not pulled out of a Disneyfied fairy tale, but true to life and deeply affecting.

I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone, but particularly to academics. It's a reasonably fast read, but I'd recommend taking your time with it so you can revel in Russo's gorgeous writing. It is super funny, beautifully written, and deeply touching. What more do you want from a book?

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