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Straight Man: A Novel by Richard Russo

Straight Man: A Novel (original 1997; edition 1998)

by Richard Russo

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,313933,397 (4.04)198
A comedy on university downsizing. To make sure the English department's budget is not cut, William Devereaux, its chairman, goes on TV threatening to kill a goose a day if that happens. Unfortunately a goose is beheaded soon after and Devereaux finds himself in hot water. The setting is Pennsylvania. By the author of Nobody's Fool.… (more)
Title:Straight Man: A Novel
Authors:Richard Russo
Info:Vintage (1998), Edition: Later Printing, Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library

Work Information

Straight Man by Richard Russo (1997)

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    hairball: Straight Man is what Back in the Game should be.

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» See also 198 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 92 (next | show all)
I loved this book the first time I read it and I'm loving it again. I'm reading it for my book club. William Henry Deveraux, Jr. is the chair of a university English department. The book takes place during one week in the zany life of Henry, his wife, his colleagues and his father, who was also a university professor. Russo is just laugh out loud funny; I love him. ( )
  Dairyqueen84 | Mar 15, 2022 |
I very much enjoyed Richard Russo's novel, Straight Man. So much so I'll be ordering his previous novels soon.

Near the end the narrator states, "But truly grateful people don't make lists of things to be grateful for, any more than happy people make lists of things to be happy about. Happy people have enough to do just being happy."

The protagonist, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., made me comfortable. I could relate to his personality and responses to the insane behavior around him (often adding his own twisted response). ( )
  lynnbyrdcpa | Dec 7, 2020 |
Russo departs from his usual style in book and succeeds in writing one of the best comic novels I have ever read. In this book, we are introduced to William Henry Devereaux, Jr., a lecturer at a third rate college in Pennsylvania. Russo manages to make Devereaux a very likable character. While the comic situations are too many to go into, let me say that Russo successfully manages to keep a comic atmosphere without descending into slapstick too often. The characters are all hilarious and that's what makes this book a success. ( )
  reenum | Nov 1, 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. ( )
  afkendrick | Oct 24, 2020 |
I loved the first novel by Russo I read; have not loved all of them. My feelings tend to rock back and forth on his writing.

Part of the difficulty I have with his work is the same I have with many others: a disregard or misunderstanding of animals (as well as of animal rights activists). This may seem surprising given that his characters tend to care about dogs and so on. But they seem to live in the world of fifty years ago when it comes to how they treat their dogs.

William Henry Devereaux, Jr is the main character. He is a teacher at a local college and holds the temporary chair of the English Department. His wife, Lily, teaches at a high school as I recall. They live in a small city in upper New York state.

Early in the novel Lily swats their dog, Occam, on the nose for nosing a friend in the groin. With a rolled-up newspaper. Later, when discussing Occam's origins, Devereaux (known as Harry) says Occam probably was abused, was hit, by his former owners. Well, he's being hit now too.

Occam is often out on the property, free to roam. This would be fine if it were fenced or there were no roads, but that is not the case.

I know that this is still common in many parts of the country. But why assume it's okay?

But on to the substance.

Harry works in a dysfunctional department, where there are clashes that are never resolved, problems never solved. He has managed to float on top in large part because he doesn't care that much. The essence of the man is that he doesn't "engage". This makes for a lot of hilarity, but at base it's a cop-out. I know from personal experience that it is fun to not care and really can be freeing. At times, though, you need to step up, as they say.

He also doesn't fully engage with his daughter Julie, who is building a house with her husband, a house they cannot afford. And it's hard to see where he really connects with Lily, much as he cares about her.

There are a number of interesting characters in the novel, which seems to be Russo's trademark. And many conflicts - within the department, with neighbors, with family. Throughout, Harry is fond of drawing in William of Occam, of "Occam's razor" fame. Trying to find the simple solution.

Russo has a sense of humor, a wit. He can't help engaging that. Both in Harry's remarks and in absurd incidents. So it is often fun to read. In the end, I had the sense that Harry was starting to engage. Maybe. Enjoyable, much of the time. Not life-changing. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 92 (next | show all)
The narrator of Richard Russo's hilarious fourth novel is a man
whom nearly everyone finds exasperating. It is not hard to see
why. William Henry Devereaux Jr. can never swallow a quip or a
saucy comeback, nor does he try to. Stick a wisenheimer like him in
a dour, paranoid college English department (has there ever been
another kind?) and comedy can practically be guaranteed. But
Russo, the author of the novels ''Mohawk,'' ''The Risk Pool'' and
''Nobody's Fool,'' is interested in more than generating laughter, and ''Straight Man'' strikes me
as the funniest serious novel I have read since -- well, maybe since ''Portnoy's Complaint.''

Comfortably, if complacently, married, and the father of two grown daughters, Hank
Devereaux is a midcareer academic a month shy of his 50th birthday. Like most of his tenured
colleagues, he is amazed still to be ensconced at West Central Pennsylvania University, a
third-rate state school. ''We have believed, all of us, like Scuffy the Tugboat,'' he says, ''that
we were made for better things.'' But while committee work, departmental politics, annual
budget cuts, puny raises and ''the increasingly militant ignorance'' of students have soured and
embittered his fellow academics, Hank refuses to sing the professorial blues, to participate in
feuds, to bed any students or to curry favor with Dickie Pope, the oily and malignant campus
executive officer.

It does seem possible, though, even likely, that being stuck for so long (two decades and
counting) in the stale and dreary town of Railton has made him reckless and a little bit crazy.
After all, here is a man -- the interim department chairman, no less -- who will gleefully tease
the touchy and extravagantly perfumed faculty poet, then find it entertaining when she hauls
off and slams him in the face with a fat notebook, bloodying his nose and hooking his left
nostril with the barbed end of the spiral ring. ''People who know me,'' he says, ''refuse to take
me seriously.''

Which is just how he wants it.

Which is not to suggest that Hank Devereaux does not have his devils. His chief devil happens
to be his own father, a philandering ''academic opportunist'' whose books of trendy literary
criticism guaranteed him a career of cushy appointments at the best universities. All intellect
and no heart, the famous scholar abandoned his wife and young son for the pursuit of
academic laurels and the smiles of pretty female graduate students. ''I have inherited from my
father most of what I had hoped to avoid,'' Hank muses in one of his many endearing
moments of self-deprecation. ''When all is said and done, I'm an English professor, like my
father. The most striking difference between him and me is that he's been a successful one.''
At the age of 29, Hank published a novel called ''Off the Road.'' It was respectfully received,
but quickly remaindered. He has never started a second one. These days, when he writes at
all, he writes satirical columns about university life for the local newspaper.

As in Russo's earlier novels, there is a lot of ambling and driving around, and frequent stops
along the way. Plot is a minor consideration. Things happen, of course: in a concentrated
period of time, less than a week, Hank's ailing father shows up in Railton, and his younger
daughter's rocky marriage abruptly ends; Hank is arrested, hospitalized, charged with
dereliction of duty and romantically pursued by a colleague's daughter. The novel's greatest
pleasures derive not from any blazing impatience to see what happens next, but from pitchperfect
dialogue, persuasive characterization and a rich progression of scenes, most of them
crackling with an impudent, screwball energy reminiscent of Howard Hawks's movies. (In its
most inspired set piece, Hank -- wearing a fake nose and glasses -- appears on local television
facetiously threatening to kill a duck a day until he gets a department budget. ''This is a
nonnegotiable demand,'' he snarls. ''I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by
Monday morning.'')

Hank's perambulations and cumulative misadventures in his town-and-gown world, like that
famous Irishman's around Dublin, are fateful ones. Always infusing the comedy are sadness
and smothered panic. ''I appear to be a man in trouble,'' Hank finally admits to himself while
hunkered in a filthy ceiling crawl space, about to eavesdrop on his convened department
mates. It occurs to him that perhaps all of his anarchic Robin Williams-type role playing
might actually be a deep-rooted ploy to self-destruct.

Russo is a traditionalist when it comes to conclusions. His meandering stories inevitably bring
their major players to a new place, or at least to a new vantage on things. Before ''Straight
Man'' ends, in an epilogue that jumps us from April to August, Hank Devereaux has run an
emotional gantlet, and he has been changed by the experience, though not, of course, changed
utterly. He has made a tolerable peace with himself and his predicaments. For Richard Russo's
small-town Americans, contentment is always understood as a temporary state, just as
exuberant high spirits are recognized as a thin, but useful, disguise for sorrow.
added by browner56 | editThe New York Times, Tom De Haven (Jul 6, 1997)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Russoprimary authorall editionscalculated
Freed, SamNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A comedy on university downsizing. To make sure the English department's budget is not cut, William Devereaux, its chairman, goes on TV threatening to kill a goose a day if that happens. Unfortunately a goose is beheaded soon after and Devereaux finds himself in hot water. The setting is Pennsylvania. By the author of Nobody's Fool.

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