Saturday, November 3, 2012

Errors of Comedy: Richard Russo's "Straight Man"

When my schedule allows, I've been participating in a monthly book club organized by one of my co-workers, and thanks to it, I've been reading a variety of works I would normally overlook. Even on my own, there are still dozens of authors within my radar whom I know surprisingly little about given their reputations. Last month's selection was Straight Man by Richard Russo, and had it not been suggested and voted upon by my book club, there's an excellent chance I would have gone a couple more years without reading it, or any of Russo's works for that matter. This isn't out of any specific avoidance, but because Russo, while being prolific and generally well-regarded, hasn't really come up in my outside literary readings, nor have any of his books been recommended to me. Even with one of his titles under my belt, I'd still be hard pressed to give a truly accurate assessment of his image or his writing style as a whole. I found Straight Man to be very funny, one of the more genuinely comical novels I've read in quite some time. However, the appearance of passages that made me laugh out loud weren't enough to overcome other, more glaring stylistic issues. And while I can't say that I'll avoid the other titles in his bibliography, the reading didn't fuel any immediate desire to add them to my future reading list.

The novel takes place within the confines of a week at a small liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania. William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the chair of the English department and has a variety of problems and people within his orbit. He has one successful book, published years earlier. The school is having serious budget problems, and rumors of faculty dismissals are rampant. His fellow professors annoy him in various ways, from their timidity to bombastic natures to their outright loathing of him (in an early, outright metaphorical scene, a poet attacks him with a notebook, cutting and impaling his nose with the metal spiral of her notebook). His relationship with his wife is occasionally strained to the point of him imagining her having affairs, not out of any sexual fetish, but out of mere curiosity. His grown daughter is having her own marital issues. And to top this off, he fears he has a kidney stone (his efforts to urinate are documented very consistently). All of these combine and are elevated by a random declaration--while wearing a fake nose and glasses, William appears on a local TV station and threatens to kill a campus goose every single day until the budget situation is rectified. In addition to dealing with his family, students, and fellow faculty members, he also gains national exposure for his declaration, and nobody knows with any certainty whether he meant his statement or not. The week takes several turns, some expected, some unexpected, as William attempts to navigate the various problems.

As the synopsis implies, Straight Man is comedic, with scenes and dialogue both slapstick and wry. William is mentoring his secretary and her writings, and offer this observation, the likes of which appear steadily. This is one of the better pieces of humor in the novel, whereas at other times it feels a bit too unbelievable.

"Last fall, buoyed and excited by my enthusiastic response to a new story, she made the mistake of sharing my comments with her husband and inviting him to read one of her stories. It took him most of the evening, she said, sitting there in his armchair, laboring over her sentences, his brow darkening, phrase by phrase, pausing every so often to glance at her. When he finished, he got up, scratched himself thoughtfully, and said I must be trying to get her in the sack. Where literary criticism is concerned, he's a minimalist (Russo 64-65)."

William's duck threat--a common refrain is people saying duck when the object of the threat was a goose--is so outlandish, and everyone's opinion of him is so fraught between respect and disdain, that nobody really knows if he's serious or kidding about the declaration. This balance makes for some well-played interactions, since while everyone is sure William isn't the kind of person to kill animals for monetary reasons, it seems just plausible enough to tread with caution.

"'That's good news,' I say. 'At a duck a day that means I only have to kill four or five ducks, and we've got close to thirty.'

Dickie thinks this is pretty funny and laughs immoderately. I remain immoderately sober. If he's at all disconcerted to be the only one laughing, he shows no sign. 'No, seriously,' he says. 'You did us all a favor, Hank. Last night--I admit it--I could have stabbed you through the throat with an ice pick, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, we can use this.'

'The throat?' I say. 'With an ice pick?' I mean, after all, we're sitting here on Dickie's leather couch in the office of the chief executive officer of an institution of higher learning, as close to the heart of civilization as you can get without going to a better school.

Dickie ignores me. 'I mean I called you ever name in the book at first. I said, 'What's that hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm' trying to do to me?' He pauses, as if to allow me the opportunity to count the hmm's and substitute expletives in the blanks so I'll know what he called me (Russo 160)."

For the most part, the plot is straightforward, leading to semi-expected conclusions with unexpected courses for getting to those conclusions (a later scene, involving wet pants and crawlspaces in a ceiling, is handled very well). This also makes Straight Man one of the more dialogue-heavy novels I've read in awhile, since most of the developments and revelations come through outright discussions rather than narrative execution. However, while William does genuinely care about the people he loves and respects, his sarcasm can be grating, and some of his observations edge precariously on those of a typical cranky middle aged white guy, occasionally flecked with bits of mild sexism disguised as humorous narrative.

"Gracie enters. She's dressed beautifully, expensively, in a beige dress that looks like it could be cashmere. As her always lush body has gotten bigger, so has her hair, as if it's her intention to keep her general bodily proportions the same. She looks, frankly, heroic and quite wonderful, a brave woman intent on one last sexual conquest before menopause (Russo 104)."

While I went to a large state college and not a small liberal arts school, a member of my book club stated that Russo's fictional imaginings of small town college life are nearly flawless. Everyone knows everyone, indiscretions and dalliances are sometimes common knowledge, and people often stay in positions or houses for years after claiming they'll be leaving. I can say on my own authority that the scenes from William's creative writing class are spot-on. Russo captures the essence of many early writing students, balancing their actual writing skills with their general demeanor of wanting to be writers. William actually seems like a knowledgeable, fair writing instructor, and his students are full of memorable characteristics.

"Although they have been chafing each other all semester, Leo and Solange are not so different. Both are friendless, as far as I can tell. Neither seems to have discovered a way to exist in the world. Solange fancies herself a poet, and to her this has less to do with writing poetry than it does with adopting a superior attitude. She dresses in black, eschews makeup, smokes dope, feigns a kind of exhausted boredom. She'd like to think she's smart (she is) but fears she isn't, at least not smart enough to justify her superiority. She's pale-skinned and bony, and this, I suspect, is partly why she objects so strongly to Leo's lurid adolescent fantasies. In his stories girls like Solange don't rate notice, much less ravishing. To attract the attention of one of Leo's vengeful ghosts, a girl has to have big breasts, not a protruding breastbone (Russo 99)."

Russo wisely doesn't opt for some obvious directions--William's thoughts about his wife's potential affairs are merely thoughts, and the supposed flirtations of his colleague's daughter turns out differently than some writers would opt for (given the whole middle aged white guy angle, there are plenty of writers whom I can see inserting a fantastical affair, but for all of his faults, William is more or less noble). However, Russo's execution falters fairly often. There's a big build-up to William meeting his father for the first time in years. When this finally happens, it commands all of two or three pages of strange, unsatisfying dialogue. A goose does end up being killed, but the revelation of the killer, while obvious right away, isn't explored with any true discussion of why it was done. And the biggest problem of all is the novel's epilogue: Russo jumps forward several months, and everyone is happy. Problems are solved, characters are content, and closure is given where, in some cases, it would have been more intriguing for their to be none. In my previous reading of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, I complained about the ending as well, how it seemed to be tied up and closed off far too abruptly. In Reif Larsen's case, I chalked it up to a beginning novelist's lack of experience. But in this case, coming from a writer as established and supposedly versatile as Russo, it's perplexing.

I'm just confused as to what he was trying to do with Straight Man and how it received as much praise as it did upon its publication. I have too many issues with its development to be able to recommend it to anyone--in fact, one of my fellow book club participants made an amazing assessment, saying it is the kind of book one would recommend to someone who claims to like everything. There's enough variety in these pages for appeal along a variety of genres. Personally, I think its reception is due to its time. With very few exceptions, the late 1990s seemed to be a kind of stagnant era for literature. In that time, the country was stable, both economically and socially, without the serious divisions we've faced in the new century. This might seem like I'm going overboard, but in 1997, William's problems could have seemed bigger than they actually were. I don't know if this is Russo's only foray into comedic writing, but again, I genuinely enjoyed his timing, and there were several instances where I actually laughed out loud. Humorous writing is hard on its own, and even harder to consistently infuse into what is otherwise a serious novel. But if Russo is more of a straight literary writer, I'd be more interested in his serious works in order to see how he does arcs and climaxes without being able to insert a slapstick breakdown or a well-timed zinger. Overall, I'm apathetic about Straight Man, which to me is worse than outright disdain. There are just enough literary elements to make this the book equivalent of fast food--good in small doses depending on one's mood, but not meant for any lasting value.

Work Cited:
Russo, Richard. Straight Man. Copyright 1997 by Richard Russo.

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