(Spoiler alert! Characters’ Perspectives Change.)
I first became familiar with the ‘campus novel’ sub genre from a Gulf Coast blog that defended its existence, refuting the claim that they were merely self-indulgent stories written by writers who held cushy professorships and had lost all familiarity with anything in the world other than life in the Academy. To a guy who was still mainlining fantasy and sci-fi, I was quick to agree with the blogger’s dissenters. After all, who wants to read about the trials of an English Professor when you can read about alien planets and deus ex machinas disguised as techno-babble?
Even after having embraced the notion of the literary novel, I still had no interest in reading one of these campus novels until one of my Comp professors mentioned a few, including Russo’s, in a discussion about our own Malamud whose campus novel supposed based on his experience at OSU mocked his contemporaries at a time when Skill and Drills still primarily evoked thoughts of grammar rather than early 2000’s rap videos. Of all the novels he mentioned, I decided to read Russo’s since he stated he was a funny writer and I could do with some funny writing while at the same time checking out if this campus novel thing had anything going for it.
Straight Man tells the story of Henry William Deveraux Jr. (aka Hank), son of Henry William Deveraux, and the tale’s straight man who in the midst of a mid-life crisis as an English department chair and professor at a small Pensylvannia college finds himself at odds with a goose (not duck) and the fellow maniacs (ie professors) who hardly have a handle on anything not bound by glue and a cover.
In a story with such a large ensemble of characters including not just Hank’s English faculty, but also his family, friends and his university’s admins, Russo manages to keep it all straight even in scenes that are little more than shouting matches. Russo is able to provide such life to characters’ dialogue that it often feels as though we could have gotten a good story out of following any one of these nutcases.
However it is in scenes when Hank, a firm believer in Occam’s Razor, sits, or stands at urinals with only his thoughts and daydreams for company does the novel impress me beyond my expectations. Without even moving the character spatially, Russo is able to use Hank’s knack for, sometimes faulty, deduction to keep the story’s momentum going without needing to include another obstacle every other page.
The novel’s themes of mid-life crisis and the delusions of those living the life of the mind intertwine with grace throughout the book’s 391 pages. Despite considering himself well aware of the machinations of his mind, Hank seems intent on showing readers how little we often know about ourselves and the necessity of having others who can sort it all out for us with just a look.
As far as bringing the funny, Russo is able to make just about any situation humorous thanks to Hank’s mischievous narration and the absurd, but normal by academic standards, behavior of the college’s English faculty, kept me in sutures. That and the fact that Russo makes a goose another compelling character and source of humor kept me laughing through until the last page where we leave a bunch of our academics in a state that’s the punchline of many good bad jokes about academics.
Read Straight Man if you believe that your Comp prof was mental. Read Straight Man if you’re considering life as an academic. It might discourage you, but at least you’ll find out that crazy is a prerequisite you can start refining now.