Tag: Academics

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Posted September 26, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary, Humour / 0 Comments

Straight Man by Richard RussoTitle: Straight Man (Goodreads)
Author: Richard Russo
Narrator: Sam Freed
Published: Vintage, 1997
Pages: 416
Genres: Contemporary, Humour
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I must admit, I do enjoy a good campus novel and when I heard about Straight Man by Richard Russo I knew I had to read it as soon as I could. The story spouted from a real life situation Richard Russo had teaching at a small State University. Having made friends with the Dean of the university he found himself in a conversation about the budget. Year after year, the same thing happened and while walking past a duck pond the Dean jokingly complained that he would have to threaten to kill a duck a day until he got his budget. This ended up being the basis of not only the main character from Straight Man but the birth of the novel.

The novel tells the story of an English professor, William Henry Devereaux, Jr. at a fictional Pennsylvania University. He has been appointed as the interim chairman of the English department and once again the administration of the university has not provided a budget yet. William is also enjoying a midlife crisis and the complacency of being a tenure professor which gives us a sharp, witty and satirical look at college life.

You know what they say; ‘Everyone has a book in them’, and an English professor is more likely to know the pains of writing. For William, he has already enjoyed a brief brush with success when he released his fast forgotten novel. Despite his abilities, he will always remain in the shadows of his father; a far more popular and successful writer and professor. This creates a volatile mix of emotions and frustration for this character and the results play out wonderfully with Straight Man.

I was pleasantly surprised just how satirical this novel turned out, often humour was delivered in a number of different ways. From the outlandish situation, to dry deadpan deliveries and self-deprecation; these combinations worked well with the character and the novel itself. However behind the humour is the brutal truth of the bureaucratically nightmare an academic department faces year after year.

Ultimately what impressed me the most with this novel was the way Richard Russo managed to balance everything perfectly. He had a good sense of comedic timing and knows when to hold back or push forward. Yet he also knew how to sneak in some heavy themes without destroying the light hearted manner of the delivery. Above all, he has able to write great prose that showed beauty and tenderness as well as bitterness and comedy. It must have been difficult to balance everything but the execution made it look easy.