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Straight Man: A Novel Paperback – June 9, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

First Jane Smiley came out of the comedy closet with Moo, a campus satire par excellence, and now Richard Russo has gotten in on the groves-of-academe game. Straight Man is hilarious sport, with a serious side. William Henry Devereaux Jr., is almost 50 and stuck forever as chair of English at West Central Pennsylvania University. It is April and fear of layoffs--even among the tenured--has reached mock-epic proportions; Hank has yet to receive his department budget and finds himself increasingly offering comments such as "Always understate necrophilia" to his writing students. Then there are his possible prostate problems and the prospect of his father's arrival. Devereaux Sr., "then and now, an academic opportunist," has always been a high-profile professor and a low-profile parent.

Though Hank tries to apply William of Occam's rational approach (choose simplicity) to each increasingly absurd situation, and even has a dog named after the philosopher, he does seem to cause most of his own enormous difficulties. Not least when he grabs a goose and threatens to off a duck (sic) a day until he gets his budget. The fact that he is also wearing a fake nose and glasses and doing so in front of a TV camera complicates matters even further. Hank tries to explain to one class that comedy and tragedy don't go together, but finds the argument "runs contrary to their experience. Indeed it may run contrary to my own." It runs decidedly against Richard Russo's approach in Straight Man, and the result is a hilarious and touching novel. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

William Henry Devereaux Jr. finds himself past midlife, chair of the English department at an academic backwater, not having produced a book in 20 years, embroiled in departmental politics, maybe about to lay off colleagues, maybe on the block himself. Much goes wrong, much of it hilarious. An insulted poet, for instance, smacks him with her notebook, the spiral binding of which pierces his nose, so that, sneezing, he sprays his white-suited boss with blood. Still, his relationships with his father, wife, daughter, and students occupy most of his time, until one day, wearing fake nose, glasses, and mustache, he threatens on TV to kill one of the campus ducks every day until his departmental budget is finalized, making the national morning talk shows. Pitched a couple notches more manic than Jon Hassler's otherwise similar Rookery Blues (LJ 4/15/96), this raises the usual questions about abridgments: Who is this character? Was that a reference to something excised? Nevertheless, this recording, aided by Hal Linden's bemused delivery, should enjoy the same popularity as the book.?John Hiett, Iowa City P.L.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 391 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (June 9, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375701907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375701900
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (435 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #32,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rick Russo is the author of six previous novels and THE WHORE'S CHILD, a collection of stories. In 2002, he received the Pulitzer Prize for EMPIRE FALLS. He lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and Boston.
Photo credit Elena Seibert

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

113 of 121 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Kendall VINE VOICE on May 7, 2003
Format: Paperback
..then, "Jack..You Dead!
I had thought until reading STRAIGHT MAN that the standard for humorous novels with academic settings had been set by James Hynes. Russo is even funnier. His comic timing is akin to the great comedians of stage and sceen, like the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Moore & Cooke, etc. Yet not only is the man funny, he can flat out write, as well.
In STRAIGHT MAN, Russo performs a balancing act of surface playfulness combined with searing truths about life's missed opportunities and moments of quiet despair. Behind the one-liners and the buffoonery of Henry Devereux Jr.'s comic mask, exists an enigmatic, compassionate, troubled soul, whose personality disorder has been triggered by a single incident he shares with his mother when he is a young teen. His humorous guise is something he has created so as to safely retreat from the seperation anxiety that is his constant companion. To his friends and colleagues he is "Hank," easy to dismiss or to to ridicule, or in two instances, to physically attack (OK, three, if you count the goose!). Russo does a very subtle and masterful job of slowly developing the interior Henry Devereux Jr., however, and by the novel's end, the reader has been granted the full revelation of character and the whole man stands naked (figuritavely speaking) before us.
STRAIGHT MAN is definitely my recommendation of 2003, thus far. The funny bits are truly hysterical. The dramatic bits ring true to life. This certainly not just another humorous novel about Academia. It's as well written and well rounded as any novel I've read in recent years. I look forward with great anticipation to reading EMPIRE FALLS.
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72 of 76 people found the following review helpful By J. Mullin on January 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
Like one of the other reviewers here on Amazon, I stumbled across this book on a bargain rack and picked it up on a whim. I am an english major and thought the premise for the book looked promising, although having read it I think the duck cover does the book an injustice because this is not a slapstick, absurdist novel like the cover might suggest. Russo has written a contemporary masterpiece, a brilliant, serious novel that includes occasional scenes so funny you will laugh out loud. He pokes fun at today's climate of political correctness (one the of the assistant professors has been nicknamed "Orshee" because he is always correcting the automatic use of the male pronoun) and similarly lampoons academia with terrific results. You need not be a professor to enjoy his writing, and Russo's dialogue is maybe the best being written today. I have recommended this book to many people since I discovered it, and also enjoyed The Risk Pool and Nobody's Fool by the author. I can't wait for his next book. Read Straight Man you won't be disappointed.
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61 of 69 people found the following review helpful By D. Mikels on January 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
Ah, middle age. Some gray around the temples. Occasional regrets about missed opportunities. Finding one's self, to his or her embarrassment, thinking out loud. Plumbing that either stops up, or slows to a frustrating dribble.
Thus we enter the world of William Henry Devereaux, Jr., through the pages of Richard Russo's wonderful novel, STRAIGHT MAN. Henry, or "Hank," is the interim chair of a delightfully dysfunctional English department at a small Pennsylvania college. Because he doesn't want to turn out like the moody and disgruntled professors he works with, Hank refuses to take life seriously; whenever an earnest statement is uttered, Hank counters with an off-the-cuff witticism--in essence, every person who comes in contact with him becomes a "straight man." His demeanor has worn thin with his colleagues, even with his family, and over the course of a very eventful early spring week the midlife trials and tribulations of Hank Devereaux will come to a hilarious, yet endearing, fruition.
Russo writes a relaxed, comfortable prose; his humorous timing--while simultaneously keeping the main character's first-person point of view on target--is marvelous. Yes, Hank is a smart aleck, but he's a lovable smart aleck, thanks to Russo's powerful storytelling ability. Yet despite all the humour and wit, there is also a deep underlying theme of melancholy and angst, all of which makes STRAIGHT MAN a compelling and highly recommended read.
--D. Mikels
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
There have been many reviews so I won't bore you with the details of this book. It should be read (and it's an easy read) because it is a delight to read Russo's words. He has an apparent ease, and therefore skill, with the English language that is as refreshing as a cold beer at a hot baseball game. He weaves and parries, his sentences like glissandoes over the keyboard. When you add the wonderful humor, laugh-out-loud humor, this is a book to carry in your car to read in traffic jams. The drivers around you will be astounded at your happiness and want the book referral. Have fun!
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By JD Cetola VINE VOICE on February 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
Richard Russo's "Straight Man" is one of the most amusing novels I have read. "Straight Man" tells the story of English Professor (and Department Chair) William Henry "Hank" Devereaux, Jr. and his foray into a midlife crisis. His surrounding cast (to include his wife, fellow professors, university officials, television reporters, grown daughter, son-in-law, and various women he's half-in-love with) provides more than enough fodder for thought and laughter.
The book is told in first person narrative by Hank and the reader is offered quite a glimpse into his mental state as well his thoughts on life in general. Often comical and plainly human, Hank's experiences over one school year at a Pennsylvania college poignantly deal with issues of marriage, health, employment stress, family problems, relationships (both good and bad), and life in an English department. By the end of the novel you will know Hank well and very likely have laughed out loud on more than a few occasions. This is a terrific novel.
Very Highly Recommended.
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