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Straight ManReview - Straight Man
A Novel
by Richard Russo
Vintage, 1997
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 14th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 46)

Straight Man is one of the best contemporary campus novels.  Its hero, William Henry Devereaux, Jr is chair of the English Department at a small university in a small town not far from Philadelphia.  His department is threatened with severe cutbacks and the air is thick with rumors that he has been asked to come up with a list of faculty who should be fired.  This puts Devereaux in a difficult position: he knows several faculty who are terrible teachers and who have long ceased to do any writing, but some of them are his friends, and others are his enemies.  Everyone wants to give him their opinion or to get his reassurance, and he spends much of the novel avoiding people or refusing to answer their questions.  The story takes place over the period of a few days late in the Spring semester.

Devereaux is a very appealing character, and he might serve as a role model for academics who have been in similar situations.  He wise cracks his way through every situation, and is wonderfully rude.  My favorite line comes in the middle of the book, as one of his colleagues, Finny, has been working hard to convince the Department to depose Devereaux as chair, a friend tells him. 

“Finny’s been on the phone all afternoon.  He’s got everybody all worked up.”

“They believe Finny?” I say.  It’s a silly question, of course.  My colleagues are academics.  They indulge paranoid fantasies for the same reason dogs lick their own testicles.

Never a truer word was written.  Devereaux is admirable in his crusty refusal to indulge in the games played by the faculty and administration, and his goal of turning everything into a joke.  One might interpret his threat on TV to kill a duck a day until he is given a budget a form of a form of politics, but that would be to misunderstand his intent; his action is more an expression of frustration and anger.  Devereaux's humor might strike some as adolescent, but sometimes it is the best response to small-minded stupidity and maneuvering.  Devereaux strikes many on his campus as arrogant, and he can certainly be difficult to deal with – he likes the idea of being a loose cannon, and he does engage in some bizarre actions – yet he has a firm grip on what is important.  He does not stand on principle so much as undermine those who are acting in bad faith. 

At the same time as Devereaux is refusing as far as he can to engage in campus politics, he is painfully aware of his own physical weaknesses and problems.  He starts the novel with a gash in his nose after being injured in a meeting with one of his colleagues, after being rude about her poetry.  Throughout the story he is troubled by his need and inability to urinate, and he is convinced he has a stone in his bladder.  His daughter’s marriage seems to be coming apart, and he is plagued by thoughts that his wife might be having an affair.  His father, a famous literary critic who left the family when Devereaux was a boy, is coming back to live with his mother, who warns him that the old man is very changed and he needs to be prepared to for this.  Then there are his students in his creative writing course, who are hostile to each other and are unresponsive to most of his prodding of them.  Devereaux’s main solace is his dog Occam, named after the medieval philosopher William of Occam, famous for his principle that we should not postulate entities needlessly in our explanations.  Devereaux is clearly starting to think that his life might be simpler if he gave up his position as an academic. 

Straight Man is biting about life in a small college and anyone with experience in such a realm will recognize the characters and the in-fighting.  It’s also a richly comic work, full of a sense of the absurdity of the battles and the need to rise above the stupidity.  Highly recommended.

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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