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[27] Straight Man – Richard Russo

In this hilarious but heart-breaking novel, Richard Russo paints a vividly true-to-life picture of the tragedy of a man who appears to have got it all in life. Henry William Devereaux Jr. is a 50 years-old professor of English serving as an interim chair of a department that is never in consensus in a badly underfunded college in a rusty locale of Pennsylvania. The pettiness of work politics and the turbulent drama among the personnel that enshrouds his department strikes him off guard like a belated mid-life crisis.

In the course of a week Henry, an anarchist in heart with a lack of political acumen, is mangled by an angry colleague in his nose, battered by the wave of rumors auguring an impending university-wide purge, swept by a surging sentiment among the mutinous colleagues who threatened a recall. And to top it all, he dreads the returning of his father who left him and his mother for the first of his female graduate students some 40 years ago.

Henry’s determined reticence and the complaisance rooted in his character somehow galvanize the silent tension that reigns over him and his colleagues. So long as he dismisses the purge as rumors, his friends and colleagues think he is committing political suicide and are ready to strangle him. This is where his character flaw being fully exposed, that in the face of life’s seriousness, its pettiness, its tragedy, its absurdity, and its lack of coherent meaning he seems to be unusually ignorant and indifferent, and sadly, he finds himself defenseless. This is where his tragedy lies dormantly until something as pathetic as the pettiness of people politics at work evokes its existence. His tragedy lies in the fact that he is too reasonable, being overly logical. So long as he can maintain the public posture that does not call him out of his comfort zone, he remains complaisant and unchallenged. His complaisance demonstrates that a great deal of havoc can be wrought in relationship (especially the ones that are no longer remediable) by anyone so inclined, at least if that person is sufficiently insensitive to ridicule, personal invective and threat.

The mellow professor’s sudden flamed-up reaction surprises all that is used to his insensitiveness. His threat to kill a duck (a goose!) on TV camera at the frustration of not receiving a budget serves more than just a comic relief of the tension that builds up incessantly. The escapade almost bespeaks his formidable conviction of refusing to sell out his colleagues; and on top of it he radically comes out of his nut-shell to protest injustice of the university administration. On facing the accusation of killing a goose of which he does not deny being the perpetrator, even his staunch political allies have aligned themselves against him. They speak of him performance as chair, detailing of many grievances, suspecting him of aiding the administration in the purge, and misinforming and betraying the department. At the core of this crisis he has to confront the question: Does he really belong? He is either to live among his colleagues who are as flustered, complacent, deadwood and tenuredly banal as the geese, or he should take a respectful leave and leave behind the squalor of politics.

Straight Man alerts not only its protagonist but all his witnesses the conflicts, wounds, unsettled scores we have never come to terms with, that sneak up on us, insisting upon immediate attention and action, if not resolution. His cowardice is always understood to be the sole impediment to his reconciling with his philandering, distant father. This cowardice manifests in his assiduous contribution, under a pseudonym, of satires on academic lunacy which has raised ire of the university personnel. While one might laugh and feel disconcerted at Henry’s vices, it’s also time to reconsider issues in life that one has so adamantly evaded.

2 Responses

  1. This is one of Russo’s funnier books. John McNally’s ‘The Book of Ralph’ is quite funny as well.

    Some fine books on your review list.


  2. […] P: Padilla, Ignacio – Shadow Without A Name Q: Quinn, Jay – Metes and Bounds R: Russo, Richard – Straight Man S: Sarton, May – The Small Room T: Tolstoy, Leo – Anna Karenina U: Urrea, Luis Alberto – The […]

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