Book Review: Straight Man by Richard Russo



There are very few funny novels that are also well written. I know “funny” is an extremely subjective term, but humor is similar to pornography: you know it when you see it (or hear it). Once you get through your Vonnegut and Heller (Catch-22) and Tool (Confederacy of Dunces) things get rather iffy in the “humor” genre. Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are usually humorous but they’re also extremely dark and disturbing and then you have the rare standout like Gary Shteyngart’s absurdist masterpiece, Absurdistan.

As a writer of absurdist comedy, I’m always hungry for humorous literature, but I’ve found that most recommendations are either poorly written or worse…not funny. Strangely enough, it was Amazon and their bizarre interest matrix that sent Richard Russo my way (I usually don’t consider machines experts on humor). He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, which usually means he’s a good writer, but Pulitzer winners are rarely known for being humorous…in a way that someone might find an episode of Family Guy humorous, at least. I am happy to report, however, that not only was Straight Man by Richard Russo extremely well-written, but it was pretty damn funny, too.

The irreverent novel centers around a man named William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the English chair at a two-bit liberal arts college in Western Pennsylvania (If you’ve ever visited Western Pennsylvania, you can imagine how two-bit a college it is) who experiences a mid-life crisis that sees him threaten to kill a duck if he doesn’t get a budget for his department and pass an imaginary kidney stone. This book might be funny to most people but anyone who has ever experienced the true clusterfuck nature of academia will TRULY appreciate the humor here.  Every educator knows that the world of education is the dumbest place imaginable so there’s plenty of opportunities for humor there, and it’s clear that many of the professors and administrators in the book are obviously based on real people Russo encountered in his own trials and tribulations in academia.

The true beauty of Russo’s skill is his handling of protagonist, William Henry Devereaux Jr. because, quite frankly, he’s an asshole. His only mission in life is to make life miserable for the members of his department and test the patience of his wife and other family members. Making him an asshole isn’t the skillful part, though. Making him likable in spite of his assholeism, however, is. It’s a tough balancing act (trust me, I do it in real life), but Russo totally pulls it off. The only writer who does it better is Updike with Harry Angstrom, but it’s still an excellent example of a likable asshole (The Likable Asshole in Literature is a literary paper just waiting to be written).

Not a whole lot is accomplished by the end of the novel (if anything) but this is one of those books where the journey is more important than the destination. Literary humor is a tough sell, but damnit, Richard Russo, you sold me…hard! He’s earned his place on my shelf next to Vonnegut and the rest of the proud humorist writers.


~ by themoderntranscendentalist on February 26, 2013.

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