Posted by: zhiv | January 20, 2010

Straight Man, Richard Russo


It’s hard to write about Russo and I’m doing it all wrong, as I do so many things. The good part is that this seems to be the type of thing Russo himself appreciates and tries to capture, and he seems more than willing to give credit for good intentions, especially to bumbling and confused middle-aged males like myself. I’m not sure why I chose to read Straight Man directly after reading That Old Cape Magic (with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening thrown in between), but it was like seeing a sequel first, sort of, or an update with the same actors playing slightly different roles, and then you see the original movie and it all makes a lot more sense. If you happen to be interested in reading some Russo, or you’ve read his other books (Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, etc.) but not Striaght Man, and you’ve got your new copy of That Old Cape Magic and you’re about to dive in, you might want to stop and read Straight Man first. Or not. It’s up to you, of course. But me, I did it backwards, and it was unsettling. Nothing terribly significant, but slightly strange. I should learn from this and start over again at the beginning with Mohawk, which I read but really don’t remember (the same goes for Risk Pool), but I know I won’t. And thus I will remain happily confused.

The academic world has had its effect on Richard Russo. It’s apparent that over the first 20 years of his career he was a novelist who knew how to teach writing, and made a living in the academic world as he built his career and readership. These things take time, starting with the years it takes to write a few good novels, and it appears that Russo found that he had spent much of his middle life on college campuses, settling more or less uncomfortably into routines of domesticity, marriage, parenting and teaching. And all of that time in that particular setting, for a novelist like Russo, becomes subject matter, one that pairs well with the topics of aging and midlife cynicism and futility.

Cape Magic is a novel about an academic (of sorts)–he’s a screenwriter who is the child of academics, who has become a college teacher of screenwriting–but it’s not an Academic Novel per se. Striaght Man is very much an Academic Novel, covering an event-filled long weekend in the life of an acting English department chair, at a mediocre state university in Pennsylvania. It’s a novel about mediocrity. It’s very funny, and the best of it is the general sense of a man whose life has been filled with hestiation and compromise, struggling through modest misfortunes, doing the best he can, which is not so great.

Oddly, and unfortunate for me, as this was the exact element that I found striking in Cape Magic, Straight Man’s protagonist, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the son of a pair of academics. And like (Cape Magic hero) zhiv, he isn’t a PhD and didn’t intend to be a professor. He’s a writer who wrote one well-recieved but unsuccessful novel twenty years before, and he has risen to the top of the English Department accidentally and by default. One assumes that some of this is Russo’s experience (minus the rising to the top academic tier, and also the unsuccessful novelist part) and his own peculiar perspective on academic life. He’s in it, but he isn’t. So one can see that perhaps he was closer to it, and more involved and affected, when he wrote Straight Man, than he was when he recently wrote Cape Magic.

But why does he choose to have academic parents in both novels? That’s the strange thing. Obviously his overarching theme, in all of his books perhaps, is the inheritance of parental behavior, moods and hapits as well as direct conflicts and acceptance of parents themselves. Maybe his trick, to set up this subject in the academic world, is to make his character’s parents as much a part of that world as possible, leaving academia absurd, tainted, and woebegone like the small towns of his other works. Setting Straight Man in an academic backwater, a state college in a decaying rust belt town, complete with Russo’s hillside neighborhoods and train tracks, allows him the best of both worlds.

I’m sure at some stage academics beget academics, and perhaps this is something that Russo has observed in his own academic experience. And I find it an extremely interesting phenomenon, one that’s possibly at the core of my own literary parenting questions. Once one (or a family) is bitten by the bug of philosophy or literature, doesn’t one try to promote reading and literary and historical sophistication? But Russo doesn’t seem interested in this. And my guess, which I’ll ty to confirm, is that he doesn’t have academic parents himself, and he has a very different background (closer to his other novels). So what is so interesting to him about being the son of academic parents, that he would write a second book on the same subject? Perhaps it was something that he found in writing Straight Man, the first book, to which he wanted to return. And maybe that’s what I’m saying about feeling unsettled by reading Cape Magic first. It seemed interesting and different in that book. Knowing now that he had done it before, I’m confused.

One answer, the same one I came up with last time, is that it’s funny. And it’s very much the type of humor that is appreciated by people who read books. These books are light and enjoyable and engaging, and they present relatively serious and thoughtful, conficted characters at the same time. But the emphasis is on comedy, even physical comedy in some cases. It’s fairly obvious that for his fourth book Russo wanted to write an Academic Novel, and that he was well aware of the history of the genre. His character, Devereaux, is referred to as “Lucky Hank” quite often, a reference to the star of the genre, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. That’s a book I’ve always wanted to read, and this might be a good prompt and time to do it. It reminds me, unfortuantely, how I wanted to read Hollywood Novels last year and explore that genre, after reading Yates’s Disturbing the Peace. All of this is actually very much to the point in trying to get to know and understand Russo. If Straight Man fits neatly into the Academic Novel category, Cape Magic really doesn’t, and instead it drifts towards an academic hybrid of the Hollywood Novel. All of which is kind of right up my alley, I suppose.



  1. For what it’s worth, I consider Straight Man one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Put it in the hands of an academic, and the likely response is “This is supposed to be funny? It’s gritty realism.”

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