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.
From Library Journal
Hank Devereaux Jr. is the kind of guy who turns anything serious into a joke. Pushing 50, he's the interim chair of a squabbling English department at a small rural college. Big budget cuts are rumored. Each department chair has been told to provide a list of those who will lose their jobs. His department believes that Hank has prepared such a list, but he hasn't and won't. Instead, he goes on television and spontaneously jokes that he will kill the campus geese until the administration gives him his budget. When a goose really is killed, Hank becomes the prime suspect. In his earlier novels (e.g., Nobody's Fool, LJ 4/15/93), Russo captured with compassion and humor the lives of the people in small backwater towns; now he does the same for those who inhabit the groves of academe. This novel is filled with laughter but also much seriousness. Give it a straight A.?Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.