Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Straight Man

Richard Russo

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.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Wobegon Boy

Garrison Keillor

“I’m a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it’s all thanks to a good Lutheran mother,” begins Keillor’s narrator, John Tollefson. It’s one of those First Sentences they talk about in writing workshops, the kind that pulls the reader into the narrative, and in retrospect the sentence truly encapsulates the gist of the novel.

Though the term is a little off, Tollefson is a mensch, a nice guy who is a bit of a loser. Director of a public radio station at a university in Syracuse (“WSJO—Public Radio for the Finger Lakes” (47)), he seems to be on the slow track rather than on any fast track. He’s missed the boat on the feminist wave that rushes around him. An intellectual, but one of the old-fashioned kind, he’s not one of the new-fangled guys that wants to flaunt silly theories in talk-radio. One of the terrific ironies of the book is that when he drives in his car, he often flips from the soothing classical music on his own station to W100, the “Folks Next Door” talk radio. One time, he listens to:
two guys discussing field markings discovered in nearby Troy Township, the corn flattened and the earth dig up in concentric circles, no footprints to be seen; was it a visit from outer space, or kids doing wheelies? They were taking calls from listeners. Interesting to consider, the possibility of aliens reconnoitering in upstate New York. You never hear this sort of news on public radio, just people with advanced degrees talking about the need for retraining in the Information Age. (125)

Tollefson knows he doesn’t fit but not why. One thing he does to correct his unease is revisit his hometown in Minnesota, Lake Wobegon. Early in the story, his friend at work, Texan business manager Marian MacKay asks him how long he plans to stay at the radio station. When he answers that he plans to stay around a long time, she says, “You remind me of that Sorry Mutha song, ‘Why Do You Try So Hard to Get What You Don’t Even Want?’” (10). So right then we know that while Tollefson may be cheerful about where he is, he is “in the dark” about being there.

He says of the people in Lake Wobegon (the Scandinavian-Midwestern folk): They are not “the warmest people you’d ever hope to meet. An embrace is rather intimate for us. A handshake goes a long way. Sometimes we just nod. We aren’t all that keen about scholarship; we believe that any display of learning is purely superficial, that nobody is smarter than anyone else. We can be surly and stubborn and downright ugly. We are people of fixed principles, who drive in the passing lane at exactly the speed limit and wonder why drivers are passing us on the right and shaking their fists at us” (63).

In other words, he learns about the special reserve of the Midwestern folk, how his own culture varies slightly from East-coast culture. Though it doesn’t prepare him for his father’s death (because nothing can prepare one for that), he is changed by that death. He doesn’t care so much when he loses his job—he’s almost happy to lose it. His lover, Alida, comes to the funeral, and they decide to marry.

I hate books that profess to be comic but which make me cry, but this one does; in fact, it’s pretty sentimental in a few places: dad’s death, the whole wedding thing. But it’s sort of a nice story, ala Garrison Keillor. Heart-warming, I hate to admit. The worst part, though, is the whole family tree sub-plot towards the end, about the Siamese (which should read conjoined) twins. The whole thing sounds like it’s completely plagiarized from the Farelly brothers film, Stuck on You—though a quick date check, frankly, makes me recant and politely suggest the reverse. Could it be that Bobby and Peter Farrelly have read this book? The plot about the conjoined twins is identical from the one twin hitting the bottle but the other getting the hangover, down to the part where the twins are separated but miserable ever after because they can’t walk in proper balance after the surgery. It’s uncanny!

Anyway, it’s a cute book—interesting because of its regionalism.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Wise Blood

Flannery O’Connor

Author Flannery O’Connor said of fiction writing in general, “it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fiction is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values” (“Novelist and Believer” in Mystery and Manners 167-168).

Even more than her stories, O’Connor’s novels have a, mythic, almost cartoon-like feel to them. The characters are somehow larger than people, or maybe just their heads stand out. I used to picture characters in medieval morality plays whose names conveniently represented their governing characteristic—Truth, Death, Evil—as actors whose heads had been replaced by giant three-dimensional letters spelling out their names. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery and Hazel Motes are quite apparently these sorts of allegorical characters, only I spent the whole novel squinting to try to read the larger-than-life letters that spelled out their names.

The plot of the novel, Wise Blood, is strange. We meet Hazel Motes, a young man who is a drifter of sorts, behaving strangely on a train. He’s rude to a woman who speaks kindly to him and rude to a porter. When he begins to ask strangers, “Do you believe in Jesus?” and say, “If you’ve been redeemed…I wouldn’t want to be” we have all the evidence we need to know that Motes is troubled (7).

When Motes arrives in the city of Taulkinham, he meets Enoch Emery, a young man who lives in town. Emery knows he has “wise blood, like his daddy” (40), and he’s going to show his new friend something secret—which turns out to be a shrunken person from the museum, who he thinks is the new Jesus for the church Motes wants to start. Oh, it gets even more bizarre from there, when Emery dons a gorilla costume at a movie theater…but I could go on and on…

In her essay “Novelist and Believer” (in Mystery and Manners), O’Connor talks about the role spirituality plays in her work. She explains, “[w]e live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual. There is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself but who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; consequently he has become his own ultimate concern” (159). In this description I see a picture of Enoch Emery, who is completely lost in what he thinks is his own “wise blood.” He’s only wise to himself. He worships the bizarre, the unusual, but not the spiritual—and in doing so he’s lost.

In the same essay O’Connor describes “another type of modern man who recognizes a divine being not himself, but who does not believe that this being can be known anagogically or defined dogmatically or received sacramentally. [...] Man wanders about, caught in a maze of guilt he can’t identify, trying to reach a God he can’t approach, a God powerless to approach him” (159). Here I see Hazel Motes, who wanders and follows after the (ostensibly) blind man who he thinks is a preacher, wondering why the blind man doesn’t try to convert him. The blind man even accuses Motes of following him, saying, “I can hear the urge for Jesus in his voice” (25). The blind man tells him, “you can’t run away from Jesus” (26). Though Motes insists there is no Jesus, he thinks and talks constantly about there being “no Jesus,” and he tries to start his own church and tells others to repent. Just as O’Connor says, he’s “trying to reach a God he can’t approach.”

O’Connor says, “some tell me that Protestantism in the South is not at all the way I portray it, that a Southern Protestant would never be concerned, as Hazel Motes is, with penitential practices. Of course, as a novelist I’ve never wanted to characterize the typical South or typical Protestantism” (164). In being penitent, Motes blinds himself with lime, which makes his landlady decide to take care of him, and which makes Motes in some ways “see” better spiritually—it’s a classic F. O’Connor ending, really, where a smug character undergoes a soul cleansing and gets real as a result. But the great part is where it gets completely absurd and hilarious in the middle, where she lets “the maximum amount of seriousness admit the maximum amount of comedy.”