Straight Man.

I’ll be on Mike & Mike on Wednesday morning at 9:40 am EST, and on ESPN Radio’s Baseball Tonight that evening in the 7 pm hour. Chats are completely up in the air until the end of spring training due to conflicts with games.

I don’t dislike Gracie. At least I don’t dislike her when I think about her. When I’m in one place and she’s in another. It’s when she’s near enough to backhand that backhanding her always seems like a good idea.

Hank Devereaux, the narrator and title character of Richard Russo’s brilliant
Straight Man
, is a serious man wholly incapable of being serious, even when the situation calls for it. A tenured professor at a small public university in west-central Pennsylvania, Devereaux holds the temporary chairmanship of the English department (a job he doesn’t really want), believes that his brightest students “have concluded that what’s most important in all educational settings is to avoid the ridicule of the less gifted,” finds himself at the center of various family crises, and desperately needs to take a good, long piss*.

*Indeed, if talk of urination or male genitalia offends you, this may not be the book for you. I also wouldn’t recommend reading this if you’re drunk and trying not to break the seal.

Russo fills Straight Man with his standard menagerie of irresponsible men, generally responsible if somewhat inscrutable women, and small-town characters, but he aims his satirical instincts squarely at liberal-arts universities and their fatuous faculty members, including a couple of grade-A wackos in Devereaux’s department. The school is under pressure from the legislature to cut costs, an annual event, but this year a persistent rumor of a mass firing in the English department has everyone edge, with even tenured professors concerned they’re about to be let go and all members convinced that Devereaux has acceded to the demands of higher-ups by drawing up a proposed list of instructors to be cut – a fear he does nothing to dispel even though the legend is false. And he manages to escalate the issue by threatening on live (and very local) television to murder a goose if he doesn’t get a budget figure from the state by the following Monday, a spontaneous (if inspired) move that, of course, has unintended consequences.

While not quite as nuanced as his prior two novels, Straight Man is the funniest of the four Russo books I’ve read. Devereaux is sarcastic, but complex, carrying the burdens of an upbringing by two parents incapable of showing much love (one of whom, his father, eventually skipped out for an affair with a graduate student) and a daughter incapable of making responsible decisions (the one truly irresponsible woman in the book) as well as the weight of a career that went neither as far nor as well as he’d hoped. Devereaux published one book twenty years earlier and it turned out to be the only book he had in him. While that doesn’t make him a failure, it hasn’t given him the confidence of a history of success to drive him forward in his academic career or make him recognize the unusual stability of his home life. It probably has, however, prevented him from growing out of his sardonic (dare I say “snarky?”) personality, which is all the better for the reader.

The one hitch in Straight Man, a minor one at that, is the lack of a really strong female character. Hank’s wife, Lily, is a little too perfect, and spends much of the book away on a job interview, giving Hank a chance to really get himself into trouble. Hank’s secretary, Rachel, appears in every Russo book in some form – the sweet, somewhat attractive, meek woman with horrible taste in men – and his mother, an aloof, haughty woman largely devoid of maternal affectins, feels a little recycled as well. None of this detracted from the book’s humor or Russo’s compassion for his central male characters one iota. I enjoyed Straight Man on multiple levels and I’d recommend it to just about everyone.

You can also see my previous reviews of three other Russo novels – Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and The Risk Pool – all of which were excellent.

Next up: Toni Morrison’s Jazz.


  1. Have you read his collection of short stories- The Whore’s Child? There was a story in there that seemed to be a base for Straight Man

  2. It’s in my queue. At the current pace I’ll get to it around the time of the draft, I think.

  3. +1 on The Whore’s Child. I find an author’s best short stories to often represent their best work. I don’t remember The Whore’s Child being particularly funny, but there was some really good material in there.

    His last two books (Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic) are not, in my opinion, either as good or as funny as just about any of his previous books. They weren’t bad. But they weren’t Nobody’s Fool or Empire Falls, either.

  4. I Straight Man was the funniest Russo I have read, but also the weakest. I have read Empire Falls and The Risk Pool before, and found that after reading each I could really feel the connection with the narrator. With Straight Man I didn’t feel much towards Hank.

  5. I *thought

  6. I somewhat agree with Alex K. Both Empire Falls and The Risk Pool elicited an emotional response from me. With Straight Man, I couldn’t put the book down, thought it was hilarious, but felt no emotional connection to anyone or anything in the story.

  7. Chris just said what I wanted to say in a much more consise way…..

  8. Having grown up in a house full of insane college professors (father & older brother), I absolutely loved this book and did in fact feel the emotional connection others here felt was missing. Russo’s depiction of the petty, departmental politics engendered by that fact that professors are generally intelligent, arrogant people with too much time on their hands was great.

    But The Risk Pool remains my favorite Russo novel to date. And my favorite line from The Risk Pool came late in the book when Sam was lamenting his lack of luck to Ned while at Yankee Stadium. After Ned pointed out that he was lucky to get Yankee tickets for free, Sam said “no, if I was truly lucky, I would have gotten Mets tickets.”

    A quick question for fellow Russo fans if I may. The only Russo novels I have not read are Nobody’s Fool and That Old Cape Magic. Is Nobody’s Fool worthwhile reading for someone who has seen (and loved) the movie numerous times? Thanks.

  9. I have read the all the Russo books that you are talking about. I really liked Straight Man and the others, perhaps Empire Falls best of all.

    The last Russo book I started was Bridge of Sighs. I put it down during a time I was moving my family to a new state, with a new job, that was 8 months ago. I have not felt compelled to pick it back up. I feel like I am not giving Russo the chance to entertain me but even as I was reading the 1st half this one felt different.

    Any thoughts on Bridge of Sighs?

  10. Dave, Bridge of Sighs was good, but certainly not in the class of his other books I have read. Since my initial disappointment in that book faded away the more I read, I would encourage you to give it another shot. The first half of the book or so is just too familiar and gives you the sense that Russo could have written it in his sleep, but the characters became more compelling and endearing over time, and I ended up enjoying it in the end.

    My concern with Nobody’s Fool is that since movie was so good (Newman was phenomenal as Sully), what’s the point of reading the book?


  1. […] of Bridge of Sighs, it’s that Russo’s trademark humor is so much less in evidence. If Straight Man is his funniest work, this is probably his most serious. The gags are often little verbal jabs, […]