23 09 2017

Straight Man by Richard Russo


Hank Devereaux is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux’s reluctance is partly rooted in his character – he is a born anarchist – and partly in the fact that his department is savagely divided.

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo – side-splitting, poignant, compassionate and unforgettable.


This was recommended to me by someone whose literary taste I have never had reason to question. Until now. I am always a sucker for a campus novel as there really are so few around. However, good ones are even harder to find and I was therefore delighted to be pointed at this one and could not have been more excited by the reviews. I found it hard not to keep thinking what a nightmare Hank would be to work and live with so zero sympathy there. And it is genuinely hard to recall a book which has less deserved the description “side-splitting”. Suspect it is therefore heading for an adaptation in the Radio 4 6.30pm comedy slot as I write. Only reason for two stars rather than one is the moderately diverting escapade involving the goose.


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