18 January 2008

Straight Man: "For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it's always wrong."

Straight Man
Richard Russo
Vintage Books, 1997

Russo's gaspingly funny Straight Man affords a knowing look at midlife crisis, parent-child dynamics, marriage, and tenured life in small-town academia. The novel's humor is leavened with mystery regarding various political machinations on the narrator's campus, including which of his colleagues (or is it the narrator himself?) is to be thrown under the bus. That narrator, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., known to his friends and enemies alike as Hank, is an anarchist by nature who finds himself in the unenviable position of chairman of his English department. Along with the typical struggles of academic life (I've heard it said that "never have the stakes been so low"), Hank is plagued with worries. He is concerned that he might have kidney stones (an ailment that plagued his highly successful novelist-academic father, a father who abandoned Hank and his mother when Hank was still a kid); he wants to sleep with several of the women with whom he works (including his secretary who ends every sentence with an upwards inflection, as if she is permanently uncertain about everything); and he is haunted by the fact that he wrote his only novel as a young man and has contributed nothing subsequently to American letters.

Needless to say the book is a very funny read. At one point the reader finds the narrator hiding in the ceiling whilst spying on the meeting which decides on his status as department chair. On another occasion and completely on the spur of the moment, Hank threatens (on live television, no less) to kill a duck (or is it a goose?) unless the state legislature and university administration resolve the school's funding situation. The cast of characters will be all-too-familiar to anyone fortunate (or is that unfortunate?) enough to work in academe. It includes the violent poet whose poetry isn't all that great, the aforementioned uncertain secretary?, and the young professor ("Orshee") whose sole academic specialty seems to be contradicting everyone else (a good obstructionist/deconstructionist, if nothing else) while posing as an uber-feminist at every opportunity.

Throughout the novel Hank repeatedly returns to his favorite philosopher, the medieval William of Occam (after whom his dog Occam is named), to find the simplest possible explanation for all the craziness that seems to be filling his life. Through the novel's wry twists and turns, Hank comes to the conclusion that life is a little more complicated, coincidental, mysterious, and perhaps even magical than he'd like to believe.
Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we'll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we'll betray in the right circumstances, whose faith and love we will reward with our own...Only after we've done a thing do we know what we'll do, and by then whatever we've done has already begun to sever itself from clear significance, at least for the doer.

Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, "I know you, Al. You're not the kind of man who." (373-4)

A special thanks goes out to Bruce Clark, who recommended that I read this book over the Christmas break, and to his lovely wife Caryn Clark, whose copy I borrowed and devoured.

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