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Saturday, March 23rd, 2002


Straight Man: A Novel

by Richard Russo

A review by Chris Bolton

William Henry Devereaux, Jr., makes his indelible first impression in the prologue of Straight Man, a boyhood episode which takes place decades before the events of the novel. This piece was originally published as "Dog" in The New Yorker. It's not hard to imagine Russo sitting at the counter of his beloved diner after finishing the last words of "Dog," unable to shake this character or the feeling that Hank is far too big to be confined to one short story.

I reread Straight Man last fall when, after a series of unfinished disappointments, I thought about what I really wanted from a novel, and realized Straight Man had become the standard against which all others seemed to fail. Even Russo's latest, Empire Falls is overshadowed by its predecessor.

So I went back, thinking that perhaps I'd overestimated Russo's storytelling gifts. However, the second reading of Straight Man was just as engrossing, entertaining, and satisfying as the first. Again, I found myself laughing out loud at Russo's pitch-perfect prose and the jokes that seem as effortless as they are hilarious. Again, I found myself enraptured with the book's eclectic cast of characters. And again, the pages of this meandering academic comedy turned faster than the most gripping Stephen King thriller.

An English professor at a small Pennsylvania college, Hank ranks among the most distinctive and wry voices in recent American literature. During the course of a fateful week, Hank fends off the assaults of his paranoid department colleagues; considers a beautiful younger woman's advances (I can no longer look at a peach without thinking of the sublime Meg Quigley); threatens to kill a goose if the college doesn't give the English department its budget; suspects his wife of having an affair with his best friend; recovers from a gaping nose wound; and struggles to find the idealistic young writer he'd lost on the way to becoming a middle-aged academic.

A friend suggested that my affinity for Straight Man comes from an awareness that in another reality, I am Hank. That might explain why I'm not quite as fond of Michael Chabon's equally hilarious Wonder Boys. It's a good story, well told, and full of memorable characters — but missing Hank's irreverent attitude. Perhaps this personal affinity has its roots in Hank's opening statements, which I've pasted on my wall:

Truth be told, I'm not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it's been my experience that most people don't want to be entertained. They want to be comforted....I'm in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, "I just want to be entertained."...That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn't make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn't go to movies together.

Hank lives his life by the philosophy of Occam's Razor: "One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything." In other words: keep it simple, stupid. Alas, he is surrounded by a host of muddled, often neurotic individuals who refuse to abide by this principle — including his emasculated friend, Teddy; the frustrated department poet, Gracie (who inflicts the aforementioned nose wound with a ragged wire at the end of her notebook); and Tony Coniglia, the aging Casanova through whom Hank vicariously imagines a single life of late-night hot tub excursions with beautiful young TV reporters.

It's beyond cliché to state that the characters of a beloved novel have become old friends and one wishes the story could continue indefinitely. But the truth of the cliché lies in my inability to exorcise Hank from my memory. No other novel I've read in years is so wildly entertaining and ridiculously satisfying as Straight Man. I'm sure Hank would agree.

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