Sunday, October 25, 2009

Straight Man, by Richard Russo

The Campus Novel is a favorite genre of mine. In its own way, its themes and cliches are as familiar as those of the vampire story, or the buddy movie, or the underdog sports movie. The protagonist is almost always a middle-aged man. He is a beloved professor who is good at his job, but not as good as he could be. Aside from a new notable exceptions, he is disappointed in the abilities of the students enrolled in his classes. He is a little too clever for his own good, and he usually undergoes some sort of mid-life crisis that makes him re-evaluate his priorities, and realize that, all things considered, he has a pretty nice life. Richard Russo's novels have a similar set of themes, and even similar characters, so perhaps only makes sense that Russo, no stranger to small college English departments, would write one of his own.

The Onion AV Club uses the term "mountaintop" to describe a book or an album that is similar in style to the artist's previous work, but the best piece of work we can expect that style to produce. Straight Man may be Richard Russo's mountaintop novel, and it may be the Campus Novel's mountaintop as well, alongside Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. It doesn't break any new ground, but the characters are so well drawn, the campus so thoroughly imagined, and Russo does such a good job of raising the stakes for his characters, though their world seems so small, that it is really difficult to imagine this particular type of story being told any better.

Henry Devereaux, Jr. chairs an English department full of lazy professors who care more about 'winning' petty conflicts with their colleagues than they do about teaching undergraduates, and who are all paranoid about losing their jobs - fears they only have because none of them have published anything worthwhile in ten years. He is a little too clever for his own good, and has an unhealthy habit of provoking everybody who he meets, merely for the sake of provoking them - an instinct that goes from harmless to harmful when the state government announces that it is going to be making cuts in higher education. His daughter and her husband are having marital difficulties. He is half in love with half of the women on campus, including a bitchy colleague, the daughter of another colleague, and his perpetually put-upon secretary. He suffers from male urinary disorder, the cause of which may be more psychological than physiological. He should really defer to his wife's good judgment more often. You don't have to be a long-time reader of Russo to know that, when his wife goes away for a week to visit her troubled father, trouble begins to brew.

If any of this is beginning to sound familiar, it is because . . . it is. But Russo's greatest strength as a novelist is his emotional intelligence, and, here, his ability to make real human beings out of all of these familiar types makes these old conflicts so much more interesting than they really have a right to be. Russo's campus has a lived-in feel; it is a campus on which students come and go, but a small number of tenured faculty never leave, comfortable as they are in their undemanding jobs. There is a certain sort of over-educated person who, in the absence of anything to legitimately worry about, will create something to worry about, and it is no coincidence that a great number of these people end up in academia. Sometimes they end up on small campuses in rural Pennsylvania, and have a man like Henry Devereaux as their department chair. They become cliches - a wimpy male professor nicknamed Orshee because he chimes in with "or she" every time anybody uses a male pronoun; a failed poet who doesn't quite have the looks to make it through life on the kindness of strangers, a post-modernist who refuses to teach any texts other than television sitcoms - but they all feel plausible. Russo gets the little details right, and, in the process, pulls off a couple of fantastic comic set pieces.

Straight Man isn't a perfect novel - the ending too quickly wraps up too many strands of the plot, and an attempt at a big punchline to a novel-length running joke falls a little flat - but is is an excellent one. Russo's characters are good company. If they remind you a little too much of the characters from his other novels, that's okay - those characters were good company, too.


Sea Cow said...

I really enjoyed this novel when I read it a few years ago. I forget most of the specific scenes, but one that sticks out is the department member nicknamed "Orshee" by his colleagues for his tendency to add "or she" whenever someone merely uses "he" in hypotheticals.

Ellen said...

I think this is my favorite Russo novel as well, but I hesitate to say that because its milieu is so different from most of his other books (whose protagonists are truly part of the economically depressed towns they live in). Maybe it's easier to laugh at Prof. Devereaux because his problems are comparatively minor -- and as you rightly put it, some of them are self-created. But it's a little jarring to read, say, "Nobody's Fool" after this (as I did).

8yearoldsdude said...

although I have never read this book, I am certain in my deepest soul that it cannot hold a candle to I Am Charlotte Simmons--the undisputed, greatest campus novel of all time.

Wade Garrett said...

8YOD - We've spoken about this off of the blog; I share your admiration for I Am Charlotte Simmons.

The best overall novel I have ever read that is set on a campus is Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is the best depiction of the life of a college student.

Straight Man is the best depiction of the life of a professor.

I Am Charlotte Simmons' chilly critical reception is as good of an example as any of what I hate about mainstream literary criticism. The idea that a bunch of 40-and-50-something critics living on the Upper West Side or in Brookline attacking a novel about life on a college campus on the grounds that it is 'unrealistic,' while actual college students rave about its realism is a pretty serious indictment of mainstream criticism. Love live the Onion AV Club!