not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
Another comedy covering a few eventful days in the generally uneventful life of a writing professor, Richard Russo’s Straight Man benefits from being read back-to-back with Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, tackling similar material from a slightly more realistic perspective, with a deeper understanding and exploration of campus politics. In this, it shares a few characteristics with Jane Smiley’s Moo, including the character of a young male undergraduate who uses his stories to take revenge on all the people, mostly female, who fail to appreciate him. Reading the book, I wondered a few times whether Russo had embarked on a reading list of popular campus novels similar to the one I’ve been undertaking these last few months (I suspect that if I had decided to include Pnin, I would find some similarities there as well).
Russo’s primary subject seems to be an old but good joke about how the highly specialized and theoretical knowledge of most academics leaves them unequipped to deal with the general concrete problems of the everyday. But he tells it well, and manages to show how this specialized, theoretical knowledge can occasionally lead to moments of blinding insight. When protagonist and writing professor Henry Devereaux Jr. suddenly understands an internal struggle his son-in-law is undergoing, he is briefly irritated by the younger man’s surprise: “What in the hell does he think I do all day?”
Devereaux, a man who is most comfortable in situations where he is making everyone else profoundly uncomfortable, is Straight Man’s most memorable creation. He has a tendency to tune out the people around him, forget entire minutes of recent time, and even to begin speaking his own narration aloud to the other characters, who frequently stop and ask him to whom he is talking. But mixed in with this tendency toward comedic anarchy is some reflection on the fears and biological humiliations of early middle age, the way the body seems to betray the self even as the mind feels like it could go on forever. There’s a subplot about urinary incontinence that’s responsible for both some of the most juvenile and most adult material Russo achieves. That balance between hilarity and profundity makes this a novel worth reading.