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Straight Man

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Hank Devereaux, a fifty-year-old, one-time novelist now serving as temporary chair of the English department, has more than a mid-life crisis to contend with when he learns that he must cull 20 per cent of his department to meet budget. Half in love with three women, unable to understand his younger daughter or come to terms with his father, he has a dangerous philosophy that life, and academic life, could be simpler, but he fails to see the larger consequences of his own actions or of the small-world politics that ebb and flow around him, as his colleagues jostle for position and marriages fall apart and regroup. The despair of his wife, and the scourge of the campus geese, he is a man at odds with himself and caught somewhere between cause and effect.

391 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1997

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About the author

Richard Russo

63 books4,217 followers
RICHARD RUSSO is the author of seven previous novels; two collections of stories; and Elsewhere, a memoir. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which like Nobody’s Fool was adapted to film, in a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,916 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,101 reviews7,202 followers
September 4, 2017
Another good story from Richard Russo – I previously reviewed Empire Falls.

This one is studded with humor. It’s really an academic novel, centered on a 49-year old professor (mid-life crisis?) at a lower-tier university, perhaps a branch campus, in a by-passed town in Pennsylvania. He is in the “sandwich generation” with a wife, whom he loves, who is a school principal, and two daughters. One married daughter lives in town and they worry about her financial situation and that she might be in an abusive relationship.

His mother also lives in town and the word is that his father, separated from her, may be moving back in. The main character’s father, haunts the book like a ghost and he does not appear in person until the end of the novel. His father was a “celebrity academic,” well-published, constantly on the move with visiting professorships and always with an attractive female grad student in tow.

First about the town, Railton, “…divided by the tracks into two unattractive halves.” Church Street has none of its six churches left. Yet the faculty stay because “We quickly learned how much more it cost to live in places where people actually wanted to live.”

The main character happens to be the English department chair for a year, not because he is especially well-liked or a talented administrator, but simply because it’s his turn in the barrel and the faculty see him as the lowest common denominator they can agree on. He is both anti-union and anti-administration, earning him enemies on both sides. He treasures his wise-ass reputation (thus the book’s title), surviving on cynicism and disparagement of almost everything and everyone.

Anyone who has been in academia will appreciate the accuracy of what Russo lambastes. They are a faculty of inertia and lost opportunity; some didn’t finish their doctorates or their books; a few could have gone elsewhere years ago but didn’t; now they are trapped in this mini-world of mutual bickering and disgust. Here’s a taste:

Russo calls it an “…atmosphere of distrust, suspicion and retribution.” We all know the quote attributed to Henry Kissinger (although many said it before him) about academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so trivial. I also think of Stoner in John William’s novel where his chairman held a grudge against him for twenty years over a trivial matter.

On the endless faculty meetings, he can’t remember the last time anyone changed his or her mind as a result of all the reasoned discourse; in fact it seems as if the discussions further entrench everyone in their original position.

All hiring procedures are dominated by political correctness. One young male professor with a ponytail corrects everyone’s generic “he” so frequently that they call him “Orshee” behind his back.

The main character loves it when someone says “We’re all reasonable people.” He’ll respond: “Name ONE!”

The main character published one novel 20 years ago which his former chairman always referred to as his “collected works.”

The faculty union rep says to him: I know “…you think we [the union] defend incompetence, promote mediocrity.” To which he responds “I wish you WOULD promote mediocrity…[it’s] a reasonable goal for our institution.”

On the latest rumor that financial exigency is going to result in the administration cutting tenured faculty: “[Not] unless the faculty are going to be invited to drink Jim Jones Kool-Aid after the donkey basketball game and then buried in a mass grave.”

A lot of his vitriol is directed at his ever-absent, pompous father:

The problem with the title “Distinguished Visiting Professor:” “…it’s hard to remain distinguished among people who know you.”

His father got two attractive offers that led him to take a job at Columbia U; one from the university for a full professorship, and one from a young woman graduate student.

On his father’s best-selling book of literary criticism: “everyone buys it, displays it, discusses it, without finding the time to actually read it.”

A grad student corrects papers in his father’s large class but he grades papers from his tiny seminar himself. “That is, he placed a letter grade on them and for all anyone knew may even have read them.”

Other passages I liked:

“…two people who love each other need not necessarily have the same dreams and aspirations, but they damn well ought to share the same nightmares.”

His younger daughter, “the least thoughtful but the most outspoken of his three feminists” (wife and two daughters) says “Menstruation always was the real red badge of courage.”

“Rachael [his department secretary] is one of the half-dozen women on campus with whom I have to work at not falling in love.”

“His mind was simply voided, as if the thoughts in his head were composed of iron filings and he was standing too close to a magnet.”


All in all, great humor, a very good read, and a spot-on snapshot of the academy. Russo was a faculty member at Southern Illinois and at Colby College, Maine. I’m giving it a 4, not a 5, because the humor, unlike in Empire Falls, degenerates into farce, almost slapstick at times. Still highly recommended.

Photo of Richard Russo from wikipedia
Profile Image for Robin.
493 reviews2,732 followers
December 15, 2020
For the same reason that I love reading David Sedaris, I loved reading Straight Man: humour. For the same reason that I enjoyed Less, I would recommend Straight Man: literary optimism. Both are rare birds... at least, on my bookshelf. Since when does a great book written by a serious writer not only offer laughs but also a gentle landing?

To be fair, it almost seems like I go out of my way to avoid gentle landings. I *like* getting crash-tested, on a literary level, at least. But once in a while it's good to be reminded of the absurdity of life, and that not everyone dies at the end, not everyone effs their brother, or cheats on their spouse, or languishes, lifelong under the thumb of something or other.

This book provides such a reminder. But there's nothing cheesy going on here, and it's written by a Pulitzer prize winning author, so you can sort of relax in that knowledge, for what it's worth.

So, Straight Man. Set in the often inane world of academia, William Henry Devereaux Jr (Hank), enters his mid life crisis. This is witnessed by his colleagues, a real raft of characters who are vying for security and prestige in the liberal arts department of a middling Pennsylvanian university. Hank's narrative voice is wry, clever, ironic, and plain funny. He's got mommy AND daddy issues, he's got wife issues, he's got father-daughter issues, all this on top of his sizeable professional issues... and on top of THIS, he has to pee, but can't.

It sometimes gets a bit silly, but ah, just go for the ride. You've been living through a pandemic. Lean back, un-furrow your brows, and let that sound ripple out of your throat. Laughter, it feels good.

“I hear you don't write any more," he says...
"Not true," I inform him. "You should see the margins of my student papers."
"Not the same as writing a book though, right?"
"Almost identical," I assure him. "Both go largely unread.”

And then, when the laughter dies down, bask in the warmth of a world that has righted itself, achieved the correct axis. Like in any good comedy, the chaos has turned into order, and everything feels as it should. Which is weird, given the current circumstances. But these days, we'll take what we can get, am I right?
Profile Image for B the BookAddict.
300 reviews667 followers
March 6, 2016

Dear Mr Russo,

I've just finishedStraight Man; the fourth of your books that I've read including Empire Falls. I thought Empire Falls was pretty brilliant but in my mind, you should have won a Pulitzer for Straight Man. I would have voted for Straight Man but damn, I'm not on the panel, but if I was, I'd vote for Straight Man.

You know, I had to wait ages to read it; my library didn't have it. So I ordered it from that place with the same name as where the guy who may or may not have shot Kennedy was standing when he made the shot. You know, The Book Depository although this one is in the UK and I'm in Australia so it took a little time to deliver. But nothing with Free Postage is really top shelf, is it? and the print in this copy was microscopic. So I then had to buy the new hardback from your US of A which cost more, the postage was huge, and took another little time to deliver. But heck, was the wait worth it! It was brilliant, witty, extraordinarily funny,and unforgettable; the best two days I ever spent in a book. A quiet word between you and me: If you did base Hank Deveraux Jr on someone you know, please send him my way. I could use a little of his talented, comedic and offbeat outlook lately. And I'd certainly value having someone around whose life is filled with such hilarious moments as is his.

The people sharing the train carriage on the four hour trip to Melbourne with me did not appreciate the ripples of laughter, the knee slapping or the chuckles that burst from me while I was reading Straight Man. In fact, I nearly took Straight Man into the bathroom with me, for fear someone would eject the innocent but exhilaratingly humorous novel from the train in my absence.

Actually, if I was on the panel, I'd say “give him the Pulitzer for both novels”.

B the Book Addict

From the dust jacket:
“Packed with scenes of pure genius, and memorable characters – from the egregious administrator Pope to the manic dog Occam – Straight man is another triumph of humour and humanity by the author of Nobody's Fool. Exhilarating, hilarious, with a dark and tender undertow, this is the unforgettable portrait of a middle-aged man caught somewhere between cause and effect.”
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,178 reviews532 followers
September 14, 2017
Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors. His books are always embedded in forlorn towns, circling around Dilapidated Central, suffering blue-collar havens, podunk as can be, with sell-by-dates splashed all over it. The people, towns, souls and minds have lost their initial charm while slowly sliding into obscurity. The atmosphere is always a bit depressing. The stories are always slow-moving, and satirical social commentary becomes the mainstay of all the conversations everywhere.

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. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo--side-splitting and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down.
I have never closed a book of this author feeling anything but good. There will be humor and sadness, and the story will be a terrific ode to mediocrity. He knows how to apply malapropisms to the lives of his characters in his realistic fiction.

In the city of Railton, Pennsylvania, forty-nine year old William Henry Devereaux, Jr. is a rogue;
An ingrate according to Teddy Barnes;
Dickie Pope thinks he's insane, unprincipled and too idealistic;
"Judas Peckerwood", says Billy Quigley;
"Beatnick" says Lou;
"A Clever man" says his mother;
"Absentminded", say the three feminists in his life: his wife Lily and his two daughters.

"A vague pain in the collective ass" - concludes the laissez-fair William Henry Devereaux, Jr. himself. Not that it deters the solipsistic professor to feel like his dog, Occam: the fastest, the smartest, the bravest, especially in his dreams, where he is always this hell of a guy, always optimistic about the future. World-weary and always upstream, he cannot be moved into action, except when he encounters a urinary track problem. Some sort of bladder hysteria, according to his doctor.

He has all his bickering, gossiping colleagues in the English department miffed with his sardonic wit, where they scramble for positions, drive their own agendas, backbite for recognition; fight their petty battles, slave away to their own superior ambitions, with little talent to back it up. They have been working together for twenty years and basically overstayed their welcome in each other's lives.

This is a gentle character-based comedy about life in academe. Hilarious moments with sadness subtly interwoven in the characters' backstories. But there is also “Animal rights thugs guarding the pond, sexual harassment lunches, the detoxing of Modern Languages. Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Richard Russo is read with an open mind. The protagonist, Henry Devereaux, reminds me so much of Sully in his other books. And I love that kind curmudgeon!

Expect the unexpected. And make time. It's so absolutely worth it.
Profile Image for Laura Rogers .
250 reviews115 followers
August 12, 2023
I have been having trouble sleeping so I am rereading Straight Man for the umpteenth time and it easily remains in my favorite top 5 books ever. William Henry Devererux is to me the perfect comedic character. He walks around oblivious to the seriousness of life as others see it and uses his sarcastic wit as both a weapon and a protective cocoon. In real life he would probably drive me crazy but as a fictional character I can't get enough.

One of my favorite books ever and one of the few books I've reread multiple times. It always makes me laugh. William Henry Devereux, chair of a small college English department, is for my money, the funniest Russo character ever. I was sure it would be made into a movie. I would have cast Richard Dreyfuss as Hank but, alas, no one asked me.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,530 reviews978 followers
April 2, 2019
Life's a duck!
... or a goose?
Sometimes you just have to grab it by the throat and give it a good shake if you want to make sense of it.

As I tell my students, all good stories begin with character, and Teddy's rendering of the events fails entirely to render what it felt like to be William Henry Devereaux, Jr., as the events were taking place.

Richard Russo strikes [gold] again!
I definitely managed to get into the mind of Hank, an English teacher at a small university in Railton, Pennsylvania, as he goes through a midlife crisis. ( ... promotion in an institution like West Central Pennsylvania University was a little bit like being proclaimed the winner of a shit-eating contest. ) Hank's story is similar in many ways to those of other Russo protagonists that had won me over with their messy, humorous, heart-wrenching attempts to make sense of life, love, family, friends, aging, failure and everything in between

Odd details and unexpected points of view are the stuff of which vivid stories are made.

What makes William Henry Devereaux, Jr special in this typical Russo panoply of underdogs living in decrepit blue-collar towns, is his academic background. As a teacher of creative writing, Hank is allowed to include in his narrative and share with the reader a few of his writer's tricks, a glimpse at the way he makes storytelling an art form.

He misses all the details that even an out-of-practice storyteller like me would not only mention but place in the foreground. He's like a tone-deaf man trying to sing, sliding between notes, tapping his foot arhythmically, hoping his exuberance will make up for not bothering to establish a key.

Teddy is a fellow English teacher, an earnest fellow, more than a little in love with Hank's wife, but his major failure is a lack of sophistication in his narrative presentation. Hank, with a published novel under his belt, although one written more than two decades previously, is ever ready to correct him.

I don't see how you could 'not' kid about love and still claim to have a sense of humor.

Here I think is one key to unlock any of the Richard Russo novels: despair is always waiting right around the corner, ready to wreck our lives, and the only way to deal with it is to laugh in its face. Hank deliberately chooses the role of buffoon as he tries to steer his deeply divided English department through a perfect storm of budget cuts, staff cuts and failed dreams. Like the decrepit car he is driving, Hank feels his life is sliding backward on an icy slope instead of climbing up to his house on a hill.

My spiritual position is the outfield. True, I might be a good target for shortstops to throw at, but I'm most myself ranging in the outfield after fly balls.

Russo is a master of the complex metaphor, always finding an odd, surprising, funny angle to illustrate his hero's struggle. It could be an old car, a baseball game, a poor goose on the campus pond, a bloody nose from an outraged poet. Hank seems to do a lot of leg pulling and clowning, especially in the beginning of the novel, but you can always feel the underlying despair at reaching fifty years of age and asking yourself what had you done with your life, with your youthful aspirations.

In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man.

Humor is one way to deal with this despair, and Hank has turned his goofing into an art form, but there comes a time when you can no longer dodge the incoming balls (I've slipped into baseball lingo myself, and I don't even know the rules of the game). So what do you do when the going gets tough? Flee from town or turn back and fight? Play the clown or the straight man?

We might manage to be happy, even here, if the faces around us were new, but we have to look at each other every day, and this reminds us of ourselves and all the opportunities we found compelling reasons not to seize.

The other tool Hank has in his arsenal is William of Occam, a reminder that we need to focus on what is the most important thing in our life, and eliminate the distractions, the false paths, the unnecessary complications. All fine and dandy in theory, but not so easy to apply when it comes to a human heart.

What ails people is never simple, and William of Occam, who provided mankind with a beacon of rationality by which to view the world of physical circumstance, knew better than to apply his razor to the irrational, where entities multiply like strands of a virus under a microscope.

Like it happened with all my previous novels by Richard Russo, writing a review is a hard task because there are so many things that relate directly to my personal experiences, so many moments of laughter in the face of adversity or of tenderness from the most unexpected directions. I feel like I would need to write ten reviews instead of one. It's not only about Hank. Every little side character in the story deserves at least a mention, to have his or her own struggle remembered – estranged parents, daughters leaving the family home, colleagues facing their own disillusions, neighbours who are more than comic relief.

The task he has chosen for himself, of wooing my mother with a bright red pickup truck, a Patsy Cline tape, and a string of malapropisms, is ample justification to me for not taking the world too seriously, its relentless heartbreak notwithstanding.

Richard Russo writes variations of the same novel over and over again, but this novel is all encompassing of our modern life, of our economic and personal failures, of our endurance and of our hopes for the future.

Other people make their peace with who they are, what they've become. Why can't I?

Peace is usually to be found in the aftermath of a war. In this present novel, the war between the factions of the Railton University English Department ends in a compromise between generations, between the firebrands we were in our early years and the limitations of our older selves.

Growing old, as someone once remarked, is not for sissies, but age is not the issue so much as diminishment.

I have mentioned humor and Occam's razor as tools to deal with the hard knocks from life. The third one for Hank, and for us, is literature / art. Hank's parents were both bookworms, so absorbed in their fictional worlds and in their academic careers, that they became distant and distracted from their own son. Hank's revenge was to become a writer instead of a reader and critic of novels, probably also a way to impress his parents and finally get noticed. But when he falls in love it is with another English teacher. His daughters may be shunning an academic career: My daughter has never found a moment's comfort in a book, and this provokes in me a complex reaction. . Julie swears she will not become a 'fool of books', but is this the reaction of a rebellious teenager or a way to get noticed. There are patterns and themes everywhere, but if I were to pick only one it is the story of Rachel, the department secretary with literary aspirations. It's maybe the truest path to redemption for Hank. He may not write another novel, but he can guide the next novelist along.

That's about all I have to teach her, since the requisite heart, voice, vision, and sense of narrative are already there, learned intuitively.

also, on the subject of being accepted for publication for the first time:

She will consider the possibility that the leaky vessel of her talent may be seaworthy after all. Instead of being dictated to by the waves of doubt that threaten to swamp all navigators, she'll turn bravely into the wind. The moment she does is the moment I envy.

I never wrote or published anything myself, but if I can steer somebody else towards a good read, I believe I can be at peace with myself and with my love for the written word. Thanks, Richard Russo.
Profile Image for Antoinette.
782 reviews61 followers
April 17, 2023
This was my first book by Richard Russo, and it certainly won’t be my last. I came to this book for 2 reasons: I met a like minded lady at a literary lecture series I attend who recommended I read Richard Russo. I wasn’t sure which to start with till I heard that this book was coming out as a series, called Lucky Hank, so here I am.

I would describe this book as funny, but also as a touching, poignant book. Henry (Hank) Devereaux is almost 50 years old and has reached a crossroads in his life. A midlife crisis, maybe, but definitely a crisis. He is a professor and chair of the English department at a lowered tier university in Pennsylvania. I think we all know a person like Hank- someone who is always making wise cracks, which are often deemed annoying.

“Humor is a poor substitute for accuracy” my mother reminds me. “And a poorer proxy for truth.”

He is a firm believer in Occam’s Razor. He even names his dog, Occam. I kept thinking of Murphy’s Law as I read this book. Poor Hank- over one week, everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

The world of academia in university life is greatly explored. It may have gone overlong, in my opinion. I would say that this is my only complaint with the book.

This book is all from hank’s perspective, which could be exhausting at times. But, the more I got to know him, true more I cared about him. He’d hate to admit it, but he really cared for the people in his life, even though with all his quips, it was hard for b them to know.

I really enjoyed this book! I know I will remember Hank for quite some time.

Published: 1998
Profile Image for Jonathan K (Max Outlier).
644 reviews130 followers
October 7, 2020
A reread of a favorite, the second time is truly a charm. A fan of Russo, this is without doubt, my favorite. With characters like these and a plot filled with laughter, Straight Man has it all. Hank Devereaux is force to contend with whether professor, department chair, father or husband, he keeps everyone on their toes, except his! Every member of the English department hates and loves him. His wry sense of humor, willingness to risk it all, he's like Hawkeye Pierce at a college. This book is so good that reading it countless times is logical, especially if you like laughing. Can I rate it 6 stars?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Karen.
1,426 reviews202 followers
August 30, 2023
This was my first-time reading Richard Russo. What a perfect introduction to this author.

This is the story of William Henry "Hank" Deveraux, Jr. He is an English professor and department chair working in a small, lower-tier university.


It appears he is in the midst of a mid-life crisis as he tackles a series of work and family issues over the course of a week.

I think what I enjoyed most about reading this book at the time I was reading it (several years ago - this is a refresh), was how well I could relate to the atmosphere, since I taught at a small college. It was almost as if I could recognize William. I have met so many Williams in the course of my teaching life. Not that every middle-aged man was a William, and that this wouldn’t happen to a middle-aged woman.

But…this is William’s story.


It certainly was familiar…to me.

What is so funny about William, is that whatever he does, he makes worse, because most of the messes he creates on his own.


Some critics found William tedious and dull. Where I found him familiar and comical and maybe a little sympathetic.

Sometimes people in Department Chair positions can be a little bit full of themselves. (I hope that anyone I know, doesn’t believe I think this of them!)

But come on, let’s get over this ego thing in academia. The reality is, William is in his own self-made crisis, and each reader will get through it with him…

Or not.

Coming from academia, I could see the humor of it all.

The story also has nice observations about friendship, family and academic politics.

I say give it a chance.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,713 followers
March 14, 2010
I remember almost nothing about Richard Russo's Straight Man. I imagine I laughed a couple of times, and I think I enjoyed the reading experience, but there is only one specific thing that I remember from the book itself. More on that later, though, because I want to talk about the peripheral things I remember about Straight Man.

I remember reading it for a Literary Theory class (my first class at my new University) with one of my all time favourite profs, Dr. W---. He admitted, very early into the book, that he hadn't read it before. His wife is a librarian, you see, and he always let her pick a wild card book for whichever class he happened to be teaching, something she was sure he'd like, something she thought would be appropriate. She picked Straight Man because Dr. W--- was the chair of an English Dept. in a seriously underfunded university where he played chief negotiator and neutral observer to a pack of bickering tenured maniacs. He apologized for the choice, realizing that it wasn't the best book to apply literary theory too, but he kept using it and did a damn fine job.

Meanwhile, in the back of the classroom, I made friends with a wonderful woman named MM (you didn't think I was going to give her complete name did you? What's the fun in that?). She was in her early fifties, a southern belle of the old school, and I discovered that she was also the secretary of the English Dept. She audited a class every semester, just for fun, and Dr. W---'s class was her freebie. Why is this important? Well, MM took a liking to me, recommended me to Dr. W---, and I found myself as the Grad Assistant for the next two years, and that's where I met a woman, the Undergrad Assistant, who I loved deeply and passionately.

Furthermore, every time I've taken a pee in a public restroom (since I read the book over a decade ago) I have had a mindflash of the main character, HD, comparing the power of his stream to the young bucks that pee next to him. I can't take a public pee without thinking of the book, nor can I take a public pee without comparing my stream with whomever's around. And sadly, my stream doesn't have the power it used to. Now I worry about kidney stones and prostate exams and future erectile dysfunction, and all because this damned book has made the power of my stream a permanent obsession (and in case you're wondering, this is the ONE specific thing I remember from Straight Man). What the hell is up with that?!

As for what I think about Straight Man...well...who cares? I doubt Russo would care what I think, even if he knew me. What matters, at least what I think should matter, is that just the sight of Straight Man's cover, that cheesy red thing with the drake (or is it a gander?) brings back memories of Dr. W---, MM and that girl. And every pee I take calls to mind that cheesy red cover with the gander (or is it a drake?). That's gotta be good enough for any author.

Shit...it would be for me.
Profile Image for Kristina Coop-a-Loop.
1,227 reviews487 followers
May 19, 2017
I don’t want to give Richard Russo’s Straight Man one star, but I feel I must. After the first fifty pages or so, I started to dislike it. The more I read, the more I disliked it. Now that I’ve finished all 391 mostly painful pages, I’m irritated that I allowed myself to get distracted by this frustrating book. I don’t feel as if I learned anything or was even sufficiently entertained. A friend recommended this book to me, telling me it was a story of academic dysfunction, a state we are both familiar with. However, it’s more a story of a very frustrating, asshole of a man who I wanted to smack fairly early on.

William Henry Devereaux, Jr. is a tenured English professor in a small, mediocre liberal arts university. He is also the temporary chair of the English department. The university is beset by rumors of budget cuts, and as chair, his colleagues assume he knows the truth behind the rumors and what positions will be cut. Hank (as he is known) protests he knows nothing. His wife, Lily, is a teacher at the local high school. Their younger daughter, Julie, is married to Russell. They are overspending their budget by building a house near them. His father, William Henry Devereaux, Sr., PhD, is a legend in the academic world for his books on literary analysis. He also abandoned his wife and child many years ago. He is now moving back to town to live with his long-divorced first wife, Hank’s mother. While trying to teach his classes and negotiate his personal life, Hank must also try to keep the hysteria and dysfunction of his department under control before the dean and the CEO (I’m guessing this is another name for the president of the university) decides to can the lot of them.

Aside from the occasional sentence that made me laugh or I could nod in agreement with, I didn’t like this book. The two best-written and compelling sections of the book are ironically stories within the story written by Hank for the local paper. The first is a story about his first dog and the second is about his father. They are both touching, funny, and compelling. I enjoyed them. Unlike the rest of the book, which I rarely found touching, funny or compelling. I don’t know what the point of the damn book is. Hank has to be one the most annoying, frustrating, assholish characters I have ever had the displeasure to spend time with. He is absolutely useless. He seems to me to be useless as a husband, because he is oblivious to everything and doesn’t seem to pay attention to anything going on his personal life and a downright pain in the ass as a colleague and chair of the English department. He responds to his colleagues’ concerns about the budget crisis (and their possible loss of jobs) by ignoring them, joking about it, and, when it is time for him to take some kind of action, he does absolutely nothing—like the useless coward he is. He doesn’t take a stand on anything. That is so frustrating to me! He doesn’t fight anything, he doesn’t state his convictions, he just treats everything and everyone like a huge joke. I understand his reluctance to create a list of colleagues who should be cut. I would be reluctant too. However, he’s at least in a position to wield some influence over the decisions and cut the faculty who are terrible (and he has opinions about that) and try to save the jobs of others who are decent. He doesn’t even try. He never tries to accomplish anything, not one thing, throughout the entire novel. He never even thinks creatively about the situation—how to ease the pain for some of these people, how to maybe get them a decent severance package, nothing. Hank is a despicable person. He spends his days avoiding the union officer, the dean, his coworkers, his mother and any other problem that inconveniences him. No wonder the damn man couldn’t pee (and his urinary difficulties were mentioned a great deal, often in the context of a childish joke. Just shut up about it already). To make matters worse, he’s rewarded for his bullshit cowardice. In the epilogue, everything is tied up so neatly it made me gag. His wife gets a better job, he gets a better teaching schedule, a grant they proposed years ago is rediscovered and awarded, his daughter and son-in-law get back together and unload their expensive house and get jobs in Atlanta, and the English department—so full of people of who hated each other—now all get along! And have barbeques together and play basketball! Yippee! Are you fucking kidding me? Hate. What was the point of all of Hank’s philosophical moaning and bullshit “jokes” when it all comes out so hunky-dory in the end?

Other than a few digs about academia (“He’s been a reasonably well-intentioned, lazy, honorable, mildly incompetent dean, and that’s the best you can hope for.” 246 and “Anyone who observed us would conclude the purpose of all academic discussion was to provide the grounds for becoming further entrenched in our original positions.” 201—that one is so true it’s just barely funny), I didn’t enjoy this book. Most of what I disliked about this book (other than it seems to have had no point at all), revolves around the character of Hank. I disliked how he would often refer to himself in the third person, using his full name: “William Henry Devereaux, Jr.” I disliked his near constant phrase: “I’m not X, but I can play that role.” I think he is all those things he said he wasn’t. The constant referral to William of Occam, the philosopher, and his “Occam’s Razor” philosophy made me gnash my teeth. Stop! Rachel, Hank’s secretary, is unable to speak declarative sentences so everything she says sounds like a question. Do you know how fucking irritating it is to read dialogue by a character that always ends in question marks? It’s really irritating and unfortunately Rachel had too much to say. She’s also another one of the characters who had marvelous things happen for her at the end of the book. There’s a definite lack of decent female characters in this book. There are very few women characters in this novel who aren’t slutty, drunk, bitchy or generally useless. One of them is Hank’s saint of a wife, but she’s barely a character and is absent for 99% of the novel.

I regret purchasing this book. I disliked it very much and Hank is a useless asshole who needs to grow the fuck up. This book is more about Hank the 50-yr-old juvenile than a commentary on academic life (which is why I bought it). Dear Committee Members is a much sharper and better written commentary on the frustrating reality of modern academia than Straight Man. I don’t recommend this book unless you enjoy reading about useless cowardly men who make lame jokes out of everything while they experience a mid-life crisis.
Profile Image for Lisa.
432 reviews71 followers
May 17, 2022
Richard Russo's novel Straight Man is suffused with wry humor and is a pleasure to read.

William Henry Devereaux Jr., Hank, chair of the English department in a low-tier state university and now 50, is forced to take a look at his life and determine what he really wants for his future.

Those around him tend to find Hank exasperating; he has a wisecrack or a cheeky comeback for almost every situation. Underlying this facade, Hank is suffering, unsure of himself and the life choices he has made; and the man can't pee.

“Say I told you so. They're the four most satisfying words in the English language. You could rupture something trying to keep them inside you.”

Though I chuckled when I read this, I have learned that you must not say this to the person directly, especially if the person is your spouse or your child. It is much safer to say it to your friends about the mistakes your immediate family members have made.

“It’s not an easy time for any parent, this moment when the realization dawns that you’ve given birth to something that will never see things the way you do, despite the fact that it is your living legacy, that it bears your name.”

I can still see my dad's jaw dropping the first time we had a political disagreement. Even toward the end of his life he couldn't figure out how I could have such different opinions about so many things.

At some point Hank recognizes that he "is a man in trouble" and that something has to change. And so something does, somewhat.

This story rollicks along at a fast pace with great dialogue, fun characters, and a crackling energy. I strongly suggest coming aboard for the ride.
Profile Image for Emily.
25 reviews7 followers
September 28, 2007
Hilarious!!!! I imagine the guy from "House" playing this role in the film. Anyway, Russo is so funny and satiracle and wonderful and you will love and hate the main character because he will remind you of yourself in so many ways. Fabulous. It bothers me so much when people have such auper high expectations of a novel. IT IS FICTION, people, it isn't supposed to mimic real life, the characters aren't supposed to appear super realistic. The story is supposed to transport you to another time and place, maybe make you laugh, or cry, or get angry, but it isn't supposed to make you say, wow, that was so realistic, just like real life, just like boring, real life. Come on. Do we really have to be that haughty? Let's see any of you write a novel.
Profile Image for Albert.
386 reviews26 followers
May 14, 2020
I have read enough of Richard Russo’s novels to become very familiar with his style of writing and storytelling. The types of characters he creates, the settings in which he places his characters, how he builds his characters and the type of conflict he creates in his stories. While some level of predictability comes with this familiarity, I continue to enjoy Russo’s work. For one thing, he makes me laugh. I also enjoy his characters and find myself rooting for them despite their insistence on repeating past mistakes with predictable results. Not that any of us have ever done that! Straight Man is excellent Russo fare. I enjoyed my time with Hank, and just like Hank I often wasn’t sure why he was doing what he was doing. He seemed to have no clear plan. He seemed to be finding his way as he made his choices. As a reader I felt like I was figuring it out as Hank was figuring it out. Compared to some of Russo’s other efforts, though, I felt that I didn’t get to know the secondary characters as well as I would have liked. Overall, a very enjoyable read highly recommended to anyone who likes Russo.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,535 reviews9 followers
June 18, 2016
3.5 stars.
This had parts I found interesting, some very funny scenes, some compassionate, and some where I tuned out. Russo's humor is wry and masculine. Often jokes are made at the expense of others (students, females, academic colleagues, and academia alike are targeted), but also self-deprecating. I adore him, but will probably always compare all his works to Empire Falls, a tough one to live up to. IMO.
Profile Image for Marianne.
3,502 reviews178 followers
September 16, 2015
"What ails people is never simple, and William of Occam, who provided mankind with a beacon of rationality by which to view the world of physical circumstance, knew better than to apply his razor to the irrational, where entities multiply like strands of a virus under a microscope"

Straight Man is the fourth novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, Richard Russo. William Henry Devereaux Jnr, (Hank) at almost fifty, is interim chairman of the English department at the (chronically underfunded) West Central Pennsylvania University in Railton. A certain week in April sees him enduring quite a variety of trials, both mental and physical. It all starts in a meeting where he is nasally mangled by a colleague. Or does it? Perhaps his absent father has had more influence that he admits. Russo subjects his protagonist to bouts of overactive imagination, the suspicions and petty politics of colleagues, his students' decided lack of promise, his daughter's marital problems, a tempting flirtation with a younger woman, and an irritating (and possibly worrying) deterioration in the function of a certain organ. Ducks, geese, a TV news crew, the local jail, a hot tub, peaches and their pits, a dog called Occam and a missing ceiling tile complete the picture.

Hank holds his colleagues in disdain ("You know the kind of company I keep. If it weren't for erroneous conclusions, these people would never arrive at any at all"), is critical of his friends ("He misses all the details than even an out-of-practice storyteller like me would not only mention but place in the foreground. He's like a tone-deaf man trying to sing, sliding between notes, tapping his foot arhythmically, hoping his exuberance will make up for not bothering to establish a key"), and loves the wife who knows him entirely too well ("Promise me you'll act surprised" is one of Lily's favourite, supposedly harmless pretences.........."It hurts my feelings to pretend to be this dumb," I tell my wife. "Don't you care what people think of me?" But she just smiles. "They won't notice," she always explains. "It'll blend in with all the times you're genuinely slow.")

He knows his own weaknesses ("I try to tell myself it's nothing but decent affection I feel for her, but the truth is, it doesn't feel entirely decent. She's too lovely a woman for this to be decent affection, though it's probably not exactly indecent either. Is there a state more or less halfway between decency and indecency? Is there a name for such a realm? The Kingdom of Cowardice? The Fiefdom of Altruism? The Grove of Academe?") and is well aware of his flaws ("I use my own solitude to consider what may well be my worst character flaw, the fact that in the face of life's seriousness, its pettiness, its tragedy, its lack of coherent meaning, my spirits are far too easily restored")

This is a book filled with humour, some of it quite dark, and much of it very dry; it will have readers grinning, chuckling and laughing out loud, so is perhaps not a book to read in public. Russo gives Hank some succinct and insightful observations: "What I suspect is that this brandy is intended to brace me for unpleasantness, and that any brandy used for this purpose may be imbued with medicinal bitterness if you suspect the truth". He also allows Hank to display his literary talent in the form of descriptive prose: "Properly medicated, Yolanda felt becalmed on a flat lake where others nearby were sailing about merrily, wind snapping in their sails......Skipping her medication caused the sails of her own small craft to billow like the others, allowed her to join in the merriment, tacking in and out among the other revelers, the wind in her hair and her clothing".

Fans of Russo's earlier books will not be disappointed with Straight Man; readers new to his work will want to seek out more works by this talented author. Clever and brilliantly funny.
November 2, 2013

He lives his life as head of the English Department at a western Pennsylvania University.. Married, he is the father of grown children, the owner of a house and dog. The fifty years of his life has been dedicated to the fine honing of obstinate vengeance, the satisfaction of tripping others up, the culmination not of progressing himself or family but the endless monotone of self-destruction. These are the consequences with which he sculpts himself, along with a sealed isolation protecting him from those others floating about him.

We must discuss the writing style of this book. It is both necessary and important. There is no style. This a not a studied Oullipian attempt at writing under imposed limitations, or an effort to be subversive or clever. Russo writes with earnest simplicity of a story told. Without the flowering of grand phrases or the twinings of stylistic experimentation, he allows the story to unfold smooth, at its own pace. (A difficult and courageous act for a writer to have the faith in a story that it will be sufficient without extraneous help.)

It reads interesting and easy. I did not read studiously slow treating the book as a text, while looking over my shoulder and whispering in my ear, Hey S. that was a solid interpretation. Good going son your are piecing together a theme. I simply listened to a story teller telling me a story.

Afterward I realized there were numerous gems not hidden but that I missed since I was rightfully engaged at reading on hearing-a-story-level.He is not coy. These notations of deep concern and importance are events that surface out of the process of original and true story telling.

At times, labeled as a lunch-pail working man's writer has been misleading and may stir readers adrift The confusion lies with subjugating earnestness, the straightforwardness of narrative which does not explore the poetics of flare and archeological placements of metaphor with a particular class. This unfairly limits its mission as well as both sides of the discussion. It is thus and more.

I missed many gems but I would not read it for the first time differently. The solution comes in rereading it. An example of one stumbled upon-I will not give details and try not to ruin things for potential readers-is when we share a tragedy with another often we make a silent pact that as a unit of two we will forget it. What it entails in the fine print never read is that each will walk through numerous lifelong strategies to create a safe distance from one another. Even someone close may need to be sacrificed from any form of intimacy to keep pain shuttled at bay.

All through this book is quietly rendered how our lives are shaped by the silent pacts we make with others and with ourselves. Pacts we never knew we signed much less were notarized and perused endlessly by a team of hidden lawyers. It is a cautionary tale yet Russo undercuts it all with a biting humor. Most amazing, and this is what elevates this story and he as a writer, it is told by and about the narrator, again a person whose life is crafted by an obsession for vengeance without knowing why or who the vengeance is truly aimed at. In another writers hands this could result in an arid flatness. Yet, Russo makes him, the story, endlessly fascinating while quietly embedding it in the folds of the reader's mind. This takes writerly skill beyond most.

He deserves a greater abundance of recognition and a label on the cover of this book warning readers to not be fooled by the earnestness of its simplicity. Treasures can easily be walked past and never found.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,075 followers
May 26, 2018
William Henry “Hank” Devereaux is temporary chair of the humanities department of a bad community college with budget problems in Railton, PA. Hank is a scamp, a man who can’t seem to take anything seriously, and therefore this book is sometimes hilarious—a romp through the inane political infighting of academia from a man in the throes of a midlife crisis.
Either I’m one of these people or I’m not. . . . I should either throw in my lot with them, live among them, my friends and colleagues, or take my respectful leave and find out where I do belong. Other people make their peace with who they are, what they’ve become. Why can’t I? Why live the life of a contortionist, scrunched in among the rafters? So that I can maintain the costly illusion that I am not what my father is? Is this pretense worth the effort? To this reasonable argument I offer my father’s own words. You bet your ass. (281)

That is the essence of Hank and since this is a character close to my heart, I enjoyed his story, even as it often meandered and got a little hijacked by the details of academic infighting.

It should be put on a shelf beside the equally funny or possibly even funnier book, shorter and more tightly written, Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Both books are the perfect medicine if you are in need of laughs.
Profile Image for Vonia.
611 reviews97 followers
November 28, 2021
Not much to say about this one. I was highly disappointed, reading this due solely because of my affinity for Russo's Pulitzer Prize winning "Empire Falls". This seemed as if it were written by a completely different author. The goose on the cover honestly gives the deceiving impression that this is funny or silly. Neither of which it is. Maybe it tries. An attempt in which it failed miserably.

Mundane and uninteresting stories fill the novel, the telling of a week in the protagonist's middle aged years, whom annoyingly talks about himself in the third person, using his full name, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., intermittently. The head of the English Department in the subpar Pennsylvania university in which he grew up, 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, threaten to execute a goose", and try to come to terms with his philandering father's mental demise. Very little character change from beginning to end, at least if there is, Russo did not describe it eloquently nor well.

Maybe I missed something obvious, but I have not the faintest idea what the title means. Claimed by the publisher to be "hilarious", I could not disagree more.
Profile Image for Павел Смолоногин.
Author 1 book95 followers
April 17, 2021
Твидовые университетские душнилы порой слишком душные, а порой уютные и плюшевые. Роман плотный, как позавчерашний кексик с изюмом, но если помакать в чай, как бабушка, топившая в жиже сухарики, то получается очень даже мягонько и вкусно. А можно надорваться, споткнуться об историю и понять, что кексик тот был оружием ударно-раздробляющего действия. Потому что я радовался шуткам и одновременно проклинал себя за то, что не хватает смелости бросить эту книгу.

“Непосредственный человек” мне казалась бесконечной. Я порывался бросить эту книгу раз пять, но каждый раз впадал в состояние потока и не мог оторваться. А когда не впадал, то находил дела поинтереснее. Герой никак не может проссаться, я никак не могу разобраться в своих чувствах к Ричарду Руссо. То я ощущаю родство хромосом, то пытаюсь дотянуться ногой для выдачи невидимого пендаля, чтобы оно двигалось быстрее. Руссо опять про Оккама, а я опять зеваю. Тем не менее, по итогу от романа осталось приятное послевкусие и ощущение, что я прочитал книгу объемом с Эмпайр Фоллс. Хотя, погодите-ка, она и правда всего на 80 страниц меньше Эмпайр Фоллс! Отельного упоминания заслуживает история с Расселом и отцом главного героя, который не жаловал Диккенса и не мог публично выступать. Отдельная любовь вступлению, которое одновременно грустное и ироничное до восторга.

Самый прикол в том, что Руссо умудрился написать нормкорного героя, который не язвит напропалую аки бог стэндапа, не дуется на всех аки обиженка и не злится, будто сбежал от Паланика или еще откуда. Нет у него ни геморроя, ни зависимостей, ни тайн. Удивительно, да? Зато есть харизма и умение отвечать на вопросы так, как я бы ответил только на следующий день, если бы хорошо подумал. Назовем это суперспособностью.

Есть у Счастливчика Хэнка и отрицательная черта — он зануда внутри своей головы. Нет, он ведет себя классно и ответственно, за что низкий поклон автору, но все рассуждения о себе и других людях, почему-то, выведены в духе таких предложений, когда уже не интересно следить и теряется нить. Господи, да назови ты ее шлюхой и дело с концом! Не приедет полиция мыслей и не арестует тебя за коротенькие фразы без деепричастных оборотов.

А еще это очень смешная книга, если вы любите юмор того толка, что работает только в тексте. Он не заставит вас смеяться, не заставит вас даже улыбнуться, но вы оцените сардонические шутки. Они не вымученные, не унылые, и добавляю роману дополнительную звездочку. Также понравились все взаимодействия Хэнка с другими персонажами — это либо беззлобный троллинг (сами виноваты), либо удивительно адекватные поступки (сами напросились). За это очень легко себя сопоставлять с главным героем и остается лишь надеяться, что через 16 лет я буду таким же непосредственным человеком.
816 reviews147 followers
December 10, 2007
I'm beginning to wonder if Russo is a one book man. First, I'm getting tired of his smarter than everyone snappy mouthed wife of protagonist role that ran throughout this and Bridge. Second, this has got to be the all time most unlikeable leading male ever, and sometimes that can be fun (I don't know why but I feel that is more true with heroines) but here it was simply irritating. Hank had a constant barrage of supposedly clever lines that fell flat and just made him out to be a jerk and meanwhile the whole story was written in a way that felt like a constant attack - like I was supposed to get the real issues at stake when honestly, I couldn't - and the gruff exterior but nice inside guy can be endearing except this guy totally wasnt. While this book had at least more humor than Bridge it still paled tremendously against Empire Falls and aside from the one scene that inspired this recommendation (students in an English class saying things like, 'dude, it's like a metaphor')I was just annoyed at any and all the characters at any given point. I think Russo needs to stick to his meek and earnest protagonists, he just doesn't play this part convincingly at all.
Profile Image for Anastasiya.
89 reviews36 followers
February 10, 2021
один из тех романов, которые случаются вовремя или не случаются - и непон��тно, что это говорит о книге или её читателе.
несмотря на приятный дух университетской страны чудес, на целую свору начинающих и опытных комических старух и стариков, на местами очень знакомый сюр - это скорее убедительный рассказ о том, как комфортно существовать внутри собственной головы, пока вокруг творится и вытворяется всякое.
Profile Image for Margaret.
278 reviews170 followers
June 20, 2020

Well, I put off writing this review of Richard Russo’s Straight Man long enough so many of details that I enjoyed so much while reading are fading and hiding somewhere in the back of my mind. But I won’t let that stop me from sharing what I do remember. Russo’s protagonist, Henry “Hank” Devereaux, Jr. is a professor of English at a third rate college tucked into a rural corner of Pennsylvania. He is now in his fifties but was the promising bright young man when they hired him: a successful novelist with a first book that received positive reviews and the son of a famous English professor/critic father. But Hank gets into the mundane rhythms of department and college life. He is married to Lily, a teacher of low-level high school students. People might be fooled into thinking that he is the power half of this couple, but he is not. Lily is not only more successful in her profession, she also has taken the time to really get to know people well, starting with their own two daughters.

As Hank fills his work time with departmental nonsense, he abandons his own writing career. His one novel was long ago; he did not continue writing seriously. Instead, all he does these days is write snarky little satires of college life, which he publishes in the local newspaper. He keeps an observer posture with all that goes on. We see that clearly in how he talks to himself about what is going on around him. Whenever anyone else characterizes him as something or another, he says that he doesn’t consider himself, for example, a religious man, but he can play that role. He repeats that line at various key points throughout the novel. We see he does not consider himself Cecil B. DeMille or an innocent or a misogynist or a coward at various points. But he always says he could play those roles. And he does and many others he is unaware of playing. He is the department member selectively oblivious to the various wheeling and dealing going on around him. He is the well-loved husband who under-appreciates his wife, although he always loves her. He is the father not up-to-date on his daughters’ lives. And finally, he is the son, whose father did not appreciate him and also the son who is never as good a writer or professor as his father was. But he is a better man, although it takes a long time for him to figure that out.

Russo is an amazing author here. He builds an under-achieving but sympathetic main character. At the same time, the way he tells his story keeps all of his readers laughing throughout. He really knows the squalid and trivial undersides of academia. Read this very funny satire of academic life, which also shows a deep love for the hearts of people. Complex, funny, bittersweet, sympathetic: this novel is a winner.
Profile Image for Marialyce (on our way to Venice).
2,038 reviews709 followers
August 30, 2023
So very funny but so very long.....What could go wrong with a bunch of middle age college English professors when one of them, Hank Devereaux the second, son of a brilliant but over sexed novelist father/professor comes to terms with being what he considers his place in the world of lesser known academia? What ensues is an oftentimes hilarious novel kicked off especially by Hank's threatening to kill a duck for each day the college's budget remains in limbo. The characters are not very charming but ever so witty and erudite. Certainly, any English department might wish they had professors like this motley crew! The duck incident sparks a downward spiral for Hank, from a cancer scare to being arrested, from sharing a hot tub with a hot number to being present while his daughter's marriage seems to fall apart. While this book had many laugh out loud scenes, it also gave the reader a front row seat to the anxieties of middle age and the fact that perhaps that dream you had as a young person will never reach its fruition.
Profile Image for Stephanie Gardiner-Walsh.
6 reviews2 followers
July 2, 2018
I needed a laugh and this was it. A story of a disfunctional English department, a midlife crisis, and a goose, this novel made me laugh at our plight as academics. the last chapter left me hanging-the epilogue completed the story.... with a one liner. the audiobook was well done, as well.
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews313 followers
August 12, 2008
Loved, loved, loved this book. The main character, Hank Devereaux is just a mess, but a likable one. On his academic campus, Hank is the rebel without a cause. He delights in being unpredictible and stirring things up to often hilarious results. However, there's also substance to the novel as Hank, who is nearing his 50th birthday, is coming to terms with the passing of youth and with his own mortality. This situation and the insight granted the reader by Hank's first person narrative makes the character believable and we find that Hank's often outrageous behavior may be his only coping mechanism in accepting what his life has become versus what he thought it would be.
Profile Image for Майя Ставитская.
1,451 reviews142 followers
March 22, 2021
Now I will say an inconvenient thing for a fan of Richard Russo-this is a rather mediocre book. After Empire Falls, which I fell in love with two years ago, I read That Old Cape Magic. It's a pity that the Phantom Press chose a vintage, twenty-year-old novel with a gander and a false nose, when Russo has a very fresh, enchanting "Cape Magic" that proves that a good writer can create better at sixty-nine than at forty-seven.

Посредственный человек
– Нет ничего таинственного в женских желаниях. Они хотят всего. В точности как мы. Интереснее другое: чем они удовлетворятся. А еще интереснее то, что зачастую они удовлетворяются мной.
Ему сорок девять, он профессор с постоянным контрактом, занимает должность завкафедрой английской литературы в заштатном университете в Пенсильвании. Счастливо женат, отец двух взрослых дочерей. Старшая живет далеко и хлопот не доставляет, младшая, выйдя замуж и затеяв строить дом по соседству, стала предметом неизбывной головной боли Хэнка.

Ну, потому что стройка - это пылесос, высасывающий все деньги, которые у тебя были, есть и когда-нибудь будут, а Джули с Расселом не самые практичные люди, их доходы нестабильны, родители уже наодалживали им хренову тучу денег, а теперь стройка заморожена, и неизвестно, возобновится ли когда-нибудь. Меж тем, брак малышки Джули трещит по швам. В общем, лучше про это не думать.

Как не стоит лишний раз вспоминать о том, что в юности Уильям Генри Деверо младший был многообещающим молодым писателем, а его первый (единственный до сего времени) роман удостоился хвалебной рецензии Нью-Йоркера. Тогда казалось, что впереди радужная жизнь модного писателя интеллектуала.

И уж точно он превзойдет славой отца, Уильяма Генри Деверо старшего, звезду англоязычного литературоведения, автора мн��жества нон-фикшн бестселлеров, красавца и того еще кобеля, который бросил их с мамой, чтобы жениться на аспирантке, когда Хэнку было десять. И вот теперь, постаревшее женолюбивое светило возвращается. Но об этом тоже лучше не думать.

А о чем тогда думать? О пугающей перспективе сокращения ассигнований, чреватых увольнениями и о том, что большинство коллег уверено - он, как заведующий кафедрой, уже готовит списки наименее ценных сотрудников? И не объяснишь этим взрослым образованным людям, что страсти по секвестированию бюджета начинаются всякий год в апреле, к ноябрю благополучно рассасываясь - у академического образования мощное лобби. Ну, разве что расходы на ксерокопирование урежут.

В общем, обычная жизнь обычного, не слишком успешного неглупого порядочного мужика, миновавшего пору самого расцвета сил, но еще не на пороге старости и без особых проблем со здоровьем. Кто бы мог подумать, что недельная поездка жены к отцу послужит триггером к цепи событий абсурдных, гротескных. отчасти идиотических, в ходе которых герой познает все прелести полной жизни по О.Генри ("Тот не жил полной жизнью, кто не знал бедности, любви и войны").

Cейчас я скажу неудобную для поклонницы Ричарда Руссо вещь - это довольно посредственная книга. После "Эмпайр Фоллз" , в который влюбилась два года назад, прочла That Old Cape Magic. Жаль, что "Фантом Пресс" выбрал винтажный, роман двадцатилетней давности с гусаком и накладным носом, когда у Руссо есть совсем свежая фееричная "Кейп-магия", доказывающая, что в шестьдесят девять хороший писатель может творить лучше, чем в сорок семь.

Дело в том, что у этих романов еще и много точек соприкосновения. Снова детство в семье двух профессоров: блистательного отца и куда менее заметной мамы, мирящейся с бесконечными амурными похождениями супруга, который в конце концов уходит, бросив семью, к юной аспирантке. Он и ей станет бесконечно изменять, а сын, выросши, сделает все, чтобы не быть похожим на папу, но в чем-то неминуемо его отзеркалит, а любимая жена бросит его после двадцати лет брака, сказав, что все эти годы была с ним глубоко несчастна.

Все на фоне реальных проблем не слишком успешного преподавателя колледжа, в прошлом небезызвестного сценариста, ныне вышедшего в тираж, который оставил жене дом, барахтается в кредитах, чтобы оплатить достойную свадьбу дочери - проблем куда более близких дню сегодняшнему и понятных российскому читателю, чем надуманные переживания с дурацким гусаком.

Жаль, но "Непосредственный человек" скорее мимо, в сравнении с That Old Cape Magic он лишь бледное подобие. Тем более обидно, что Ричард Руссо являет собой редчайший образец творца, чей дар крепнет с возрастом и русскоязычный читатель мог бы познакомиться с действительно сильной яркой мощной книгой уровня "Эмпайр Фоллз"
Profile Image for Brian Fagan.
289 reviews61 followers
June 11, 2021
Someone posted on a Goodreads book review the phrase "the late Richard Russo". I just about had a stroke. Russo is my favorite living (?) writer, and to think that he is gone, and also that I didn't even hear about it, was a stunning blow. A quick check revealed that he is not dead. Whew!

My initial impression as I got into Straight Man was that both Russo's main character, Hank Devereaux, and the overall setup seemed Updikean. I love John Updike, but when I read Russo, I want Russo, not Updike. However, as I progressed further, I became certain that the similarities to Updike were unintentional and actually more likely imagined than real. And the novel's overall quality is A+.

Russo wrote Straight Man in 1997. It has no connection with any of his other novels. Hank Devereaux is a 49 year old English Professor at West Central Pennsylvania University in Railton. His wife Lily, who teaches at the local high school, is just about the only person he can't fool - she sees through him like glass, and he's pretty much resigned himself to being honest with her.

"One of the nice things about our marriage, at least to my way of thinking, is that my wife and I no longer have to argue everything through. We each know what the other will say, and so the saying becomes an unnecessary formality. No doubt some marriage counselor would explain to us that our problem is a failure to communicate, but to my way of thinking we've worked long and hard to achieve this silence, Lily's and mine, so fraught with mutual understanding."

However, he seems to be incapable of being serious with anyone else. Every time he finds himself in a situation in which he is being criticized or threatened or questioned directly, he responds with a punch line instead of the truth. This drives everyone around him crazy. No one can get a straight answer from him. He turns criticism into humor, even when it's not in his best interest. Along the lines of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H.

"Even twenty years ago people were saying what an arrogant prick you were. Rudy said, Don't worry, he'll grow up. Pups are supposed to mess themselves. Swat him on the ass with a rolled-up newspaper a couple times he'll get the message." ...The thing is, you're worse now than you were then. And you think you're just being frisky. Fifty years old and you're still shitting on the carpet and thinking it's clever."

And a bit later: "You are the physical embodiment of the perversity principle... Fake left, go right. Fake right, go left. Keep everybody in suspense, right? What's Hank going to do? If you have to fuck yourself over to surprise them, so be it."

Russo always amazes me with his insight into people. "I hate to provoke guilt ... One of my few parental rules has been to try not to inspire or encourage guilt in our daughters. Of course it's been easy to play good cop, married to Lily, who grew up ... Catholic ... She outgrew its orthodoxy without being able to surrender its methods - a subtle blend of bribery, guilt provoking, and Skinner-esque behaviorism - strategies my wife has used to combat my own encouraged Emersonian self-reliance theory of child rearing, or anarchy, as Lily refers to it. I suspect our daughters survived childhood by cheerfully ignoring both Lily and me rather than trying to reconcile our disparate advice."

When you reflect on Russo's characters, you realize that he has a solid belief, if not in people's goodness, then in their value.
Profile Image for Connie.
64 reviews37 followers
November 24, 2013
Meh. 1.5.

I finished it. Barely. That's about all I can say for the book. I bought it for $4 from The Book Barn a while back--after all, I should really read something other than science fiction or fantasy sometimes, right? The problem is, whenever I go outside my book comfort zone, my success rate tends to be fairly low. Ironically, when I went back to The Book Barn today (looking to get rid of the darn thing), they wouldn't take it back! I brought back about 20 books and 25 dvds--and some of them pretty strange (I mean, I brought the movie "The Faculty"). And this was the only item they didn't want. So now I'm stuck with the darn thing. You want a copy? Let me know. The narrator of the book, was he real, would probably have a good laugh at that one.

I guess this is one of those "good" books--one that addresses the quirks of human nature, the listlessness that comes with being middle-aged and stuck with mediocrity, long-repressed daddy issues, and so forth. But, it just wasn't fun to read, and I don't feel like I gained any better knowledge or understanding from reading it.

The first 50 pages or so I actually enjoyed--the narrator is the perpetual comic--mocking at all the "Straight" men and women around him, people who can't see the humor in their own idiosyncrasies. But as the book progresses, the narrator comes across as more and more of a jerk--for example, some of the people in his department come to him fearing for their jobs, and all he can do is laugh. The entire book felt "fuzzy" to me: the readers' only glimpse into the world is through the narrator, and he is so clueless it feels like being stuck in thick fog. This happens within the last few pages, and I was already debating between a one and two star review before it happened.

I guess the comedy in this book just didn't really strike me as all that funny. At best, it was a little bit too close to home. At worst, it was just annoying.

In sum: meh.

Profile Image for Benjamin Kahn.
1,460 reviews13 followers
February 12, 2021
I didn't like this book. The protagonist was a smug prick - I'd like to use a more polite term, but prick is so fitting. I came close to quitting around page 219 because I found him so unlikeable. In the end, I soldiered on until the book came to its unsatisfying conclusion. The epilogue where Russo tells you how everything works out was gruelling as I found I didn't care about any of the characters or their fates. And there was a certain self-satisfied smugness in the writing that made it even more painful to read.

I didn't like any of the characters. I didn't like the little literary tricks Russo used. For instance, one character has every sentence end in a question mark to show her insecurity, which quickly grows tiresome. When even her written communications are done this way, it went farther than my disbelief was willing to be suspended. There are several examples of this, all equally frustrating.

Russo's protagonist is just a smart-ass jerk, who thinks he's cleverer than everybody else. He leaves his poor secretary to fend off his work commitments, his wife to deal with his children, and lives an irresponsible life, sneering at everybody else while not really doing anything noteworthy or worthwhile. At the end of the book, we don't get any redemption, we get the same crap that has gone on before and are expected to take it as some kind of a resolution.

Even as a satire on academic life, it failed to engage me. I've read many treatments of academic life - Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, C.P. Snow's The Masters (not a satire) and Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels that were wonderful, compelling reads. There is nothing to recommend this book. I found it on a list of lost American classics. This book should probably stay lost.
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