Monday, August 28, 2006

Straight Man

The Richard Russo books I’ve read have all taken place in decaying New York mill towns. Straight Man varies that by taking place in a decaying Pennsylvania railroad town. Actually, it differs from his other books quite significantly by belonging to another genre—it’s a campus comedy, a genre I associate with writers like David Lodge. Russo does a hell of a good job with it, as would be expected. William Henry Devereaux is the creative writing professor at a small state college, a place where his colleagues are mostly mediocre, as are his students. Devereaux is the temporary chair of the English Department (while they search for a permanent head), and the university administration is hinting at layoffs. He is therefore placed between the administrators and the faculty, loved by neither side, assumed by each side of favoring the other. Considering his basic lack of leadership ability (not to mention temperament), it’s a position that is very uncomfortable for him. His body reacts—he can’t seem to piss, he had near-blackouts, and his nose has been ripped-open Chinatown-like by an angry colleague (a bizarre accident—she only meant to hit him in the face with a spiral-bound notebook).

All of Russo’s books start slow and build. Straight Man, being a comedy, builds more quickly and reaches a somewhat manic pace. This kind of book depends on a piling on of events, and tends to end abruptly. Russo doesn’t depart from that time-honored approach, and consequently by the end, I was reading faster and faster, unable to set it aside. A very funny book.

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