Straight Man by Richard Russo

From Goodreads: “In this uproarious new novel, Richard Russo performs his characteristic high-wire walk between hilarity and heartbreak.  Russo’s protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt.  Devereaux’s reluctance is partly rooted in his character–he is a born anarchist– and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans.  

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television.  All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions.”

 William Henry Devereaux, Jr (Hank) is the temporary chairman of the English department at declining Pennsylvania college. It is not a job he aspired to, he doesn’t want to be doing it, and yet he is. So goes the life of Hank. Add on peach pits, the inability to urinate, an angry poet, a literary legend of a father and a handful of other inane, yet hilarious items and you get the summation of William Henry Devereaux, Jr.’s life.

As promised, Straight Man does walk the fine line between hilarity and heartbreak. The events of this novel are ridiculous and the characters absurd, but ultimately the novel is very human. Despite the fact that Russo primarily writes about middle aged men, I generally find myself drawn to his deeply flawed characters, even if I cannot relate. He seems to understand that it’s not big events that define us, it’s their small humiliations, irrational imaginings, and the joys we experience that fundamentally make up who we are (and make us realize what we lack). Russo does a wonderful job of making the everyday seem funny and the ridiculous seem rational. Despite it being a comedy on the surface, the novel does a wonderful job of showing how complexly layered humans are. From bitter despair to sublime triumph, the emotions experienced by Devereaux show just how much we can love and loathe life (often at the same time) and how the simplest experiences can redefine us.

I’d highly recommend Straight Man; it is one of my favorite Richard Russo novels and certainly one of his funniest. Bottom line: 4.5/5.

Since peach pits play a rather profound role in the novel, I am recommending a peaches and creme crepe to go with this novel. It doesn’t surpass the deliciousness of a banana, nutella, and vanilla ice cream crepe, but it is a must for any crepe aficionado.

Photos: Goodreads, Williams-Sonoma.

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