Richard Russo’s Straight Man invalidates the widely held notion in academe that nothing happens in a department during an interim chair’s watch. Up to a point, fiction mirrors life in Russo’s most ambitious novel, his fourth. William Henry (Hank) Devereux, Jr., who teaches creative writing, was appointed as department chair pro tempore only because he was considered safe. For the last twenty years engulfed in stagnant grievances and unfulfilled ambitions, the crabby English faculty at West Central Pennsylvania College assume they can rely on him, as undistinguished as they, not to muddy the academic waters with change. They are wrong. Russo devotes nearly four hundred pages to Hank’s mind-over-matter reinvention of himself.
“In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man,” Hank tells himself early in the novel. Wearing a fake nose and glasses, he has just mock- accused one of his tormentors, a female poetaster, of sexual harassment. “You weren’t turned on yesterday?” he jokes. Yesterday, the poet, Gracie DuBois, had bashed him for an unsubtle slight uttered at a department meeting. For overplaying the role of straight man, Hank had to summon the janitor to extricate the coils of Gracie’s notebook from his nostril.
Paul Rourke, the dour “eighteenth century man,” is Hank’s most persistent enemy. Rourke charges him with trying to make everything into a joke but never being funny. In this novel’s terms, Rourke is more right than he thinks. Hank functions like Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H; he detests the fraud and cant he sees everywhere, especially in himself, and pretends to laugh at his self-entrapments to keep from crying.
Straight Man pivots skillfully between the two meanings of its title. Russo never quite allows his protagonist’s moral focus to be obliterated by all the verbal shenanigans; it is merely disguised. Crunch time comes after still another fruitless confrontation with the slimy Dickie Pope, campus executive officer. Hank grabs a goose from the campus pond (he had dubbed the goose Finny that very morning, after the department transvestite) and, with TV cameras churning while dignitaries cut the ribbon for a grand, new engineering complex, he threatens to kill it or another like it (he really means ducks) every day until the English department gets its funding. “This is a nonnegotiable demand,” Hank shouts above the cheers of the crowd and camera crew. “I want the money on my desk by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night.”
The comic effect would be spoiled if Hank had to make good his threat. Several ducks, mysteriously dead, turn up, and Hank is blamed by everyone from students and colleagues to Railton’s animal rights advocates. The placing of blame and the accusations do not matter: The duck threat defuses the force of the administration’s rigid authority. Hank has introduced a human factor whose workings will be slow but sure. The comic ploy allows the reader to infer the effect on Hank of twenty years of departmental sloth and “the increasingly militant ignorance” of students. In this one bold-if-bluffing stroke, he has taken on the administration and the union. He calls a pox on both houses and in the process upholds his most dearly held motto, drawn from the philosophical rule of Occam’s razor: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”
For Hank Devereux, invoking Occam’s urge to simplify becomes a check on any tendency to self-indulgence. Its implications are profound, but application is difficult. In dealing with his domestic problems, including the residual effects of his teacher-critic father’s early defection from the family, Hank reminds his wife Lily that lies and pretenses always require more lies and pretenses—a clear violation of Occam.
“I’m not an easy man,” Hank confesses in a seven-page prologue. “The kind of man I am, according to those who know me best, is exasperating. I was . . . an impossible child.” Even more so is his father. William Henry Devereux, Sr., never functions as a character in the book but instead is a galvanic presence—or rather, absence—in his son’s life. When Hank was nine years old, having “lobbied” two years for a dog and “earned” one, he fled the house rather than accept the pet his father brought him: not the puppy he wanted but an aged dog that became available when a retired colleague went into a nursing home.
A purebred, rust-colored Irish setter, meticulously groomed,...
(The entire section is 1878 words.)