Straight Man by Richard Russo


Recently I listened to this book that I read decades ago, in the pre-blog days. I recall it as being very funny and a delightful send-up of academia and I was curious to see how it held up after all this time. Before I go into that, I want to say that I have read other books by Richard Russo and loved them, particularly Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and Bridge of Sighs.

The memorable moment in this book is when the narrator, Hank Devereaux, interim head of the English department of a university in rustbelt Pennsylvania, holding a goose by the neck in front of a tv news camera, threatens to kill a duck a day until he receives his departmental budget. And yes, he calls the goose a duck.

Hank tells us that his wife, who is away for this key week, is the sensible one, the one who, unlike him, pays attention. Fortunately Hank does have his charms. Along with the duck/goose threat, Hank has lots happening:  an angry English prof hooks his nose with the end of the spiral of a notebook during a meeting, he is having scary health symptoms, the English department will meet to vote whether to recall his position as chair, his famous father is coming back into his life, having left the family decades earlier, he gets drunk in the hot tub with another faculty friend and the tv newscaster who was present for the duck/goose incident and a selfie is taken, and well, there’s more.

It’s exhausting. But as I said, Hank has his charms and more importantly, has his reflective moments. It was pleasing enough to revisit this late 90s book.

Richard Russo, Straight Man, Random House 1997, 491 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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