Straight Man is a contemporary novel (1997), and it’s one of what seems to be an emerging recent genre of page-turner comic mysteries involving college English professors who become embroiled in ridiculous department politics where there are bizarre romances, crazy murders, and wonderful suspense. I’m thinking here of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, Jane Smiley’s Moo, James Hynes’s Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror as well as Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale. That more than one such story exists in no way diminishes Russo’s novel or necessarily makes it less original, because I did indeed stay up later than I planned a few times reading to find out what would happen. But when I read the countless times that Russo’s protagonist Hank Devereaux, Jr. rolls his eyes at the fact that every college English teacher has a novel manuscript tucked away, I began to wonder, is this book just another drop in the bucket—another English department narrative about life in the English department, appealing to me only because I know all about life in the English department?
Nevertheless, what appears to be a plot-heavy narrative drives around the fact that the university is rumored to be undergoing heavy budget cuts, a rumor division chair Hank Devereaux, Jr. decides not to pay attention to until he finds out for sure. He continues to communicate poorly with everyone around him, including the faculty members who report to him along with his wife and daughters as well as his close friends and superiors at work. Hank doesn’t even communicate directly with his wife, who he imagines is cheating on him. Symbolic of his emotional and communicative withholding behavior is Hank’s inability to urinate. He’s completely blocked in several ways, then.
To add insult to injury, the college administration hasn't given him a budget to run his department. So, imagine his surprise, when just at the height of his dissatisfaction, he encounters a newsteam on his way outside a meeting. As he is interviewed, Devereaux grabs a goose from the campus pond and threatens to kill it and another one every day until he gets a budget from the administration. Hijinx ensue. The goose gets cooked—literally, well, at least it gets killed, but not by Devereaux, but the administration doesn’t know that. Predictably, though, in the end the killer is the psycho student from Devereaux’s fiction writing class.
Yet even if that part is predictable, Devereaux himself is not. The likeable facet of Devereaux’s personality is that he’s a 50-ish smartass. The fact that he can’t get serious about life is infuriating sometimes to everyone he deals with; it’s the very withholding of communication that bothers everyone so much. If he clowns around and remains childish, it stops him from having to confront his absent father about having essentially abandoned him and it allows him to ignore the college leadership crumbling all around him. It even allows him to ignore all the signs around him of middle age, including colleagues on their second marriages to extremely young women and having to stop driving because of illness. Not getting serious, as it happens, pays off for Hank Devereaux.
So when in the end he turns down the dean’s job he even anticipated getting from his friend Jacob Rose—infuriating Jacob Rose, who asks him, “What kind of man goes through life content to be a fly in other people’s ointment? What kind of pleasure do you get from that? How old are you?”
How is it resolved, then? It’s one of those novels, where we see the protagonist at the end arriving at some sort of psychological understanding with his former nemesis (along with his other pals) and throwing back his head shrieking with laughter, in this case in a room all together at an insignificant joke. It’s all a little anticlimactic, frankly, after an otherwise pretty good story.
I like what the book says about the importance of a comic hero. Devereaux’s power is underestimated by all those around him because he’s a joker, but as a result of his wish not to be serious, he doesn’t get old the way his colleagues do; he stays married; he doesn’t sell out. In that regard Devereaux is the winner in my book. Comedy wins.