Tuesday, June 20, 2017
A friend who is a member of a university faculty (non-law) some years ago recommended that I read Straight Man, by Richard Russo. I am forever thankful. The book is a novel set in a small town in Pennsylvania and follows the trials and tribulations of an English-department faculty member at a college besieged by budget challenges, a dysfunctional department, and his own lack of motivation.
The book is funny -- sometimes laugh-out-loud funny -- and for anyone on a faculty, I am willing to wager that, despite occasional absurdity, this faculty will feel like it could be yours. The main character is sympathetic, to a point, but he is also part of the problem. It is a fast read, and it's one I come back to every couple years. Perhaps it is just a guilty pleasure, but the universality of the characters and the bit of hope that emerges are things I find to be comforting in some way. It may be that the book serves as a reminder that we're not alone in our craziness. Everyone who has taught for a while knows a Hank, a Finny, a Gracie DuBois, Jacob Rose, a Billy Quigley.
The book also a good reminder of traps we, as faculty (and administrators), can fall into, and hopefully, help us avoid them. If you need a break from research and heavy reading, I highly recommend you put this in the rotation.
Here's the Amazon.com Review:
First Jane Smiley came out of the comedy closet with Moo, a campus satire par excellence, and now Richard Russo has gotten in on the groves-of-academe game. Straight Man is hilarious sport, with a serious side. William Henry Devereaux Jr., is almost 50 and stuck forever as chair of English at West Central Pennsylvania University. It is April and fear of layoffs--even among the tenured--has reached mock-epic proportions; Hank has yet to receive his department budget and finds himself increasingly offering comments such as "Always understate necrophilia" to his writing students. Then there are his possible prostate problems and the prospect of his father's arrival. Devereaux Sr., "then and now, an academic opportunist," has always been a high-profile professor and a low-profile parent.
Though Hank tries to apply William of Occam's rational approach (choose simplicity) to each increasingly absurd situation, and even has a dog named after the philosopher, he does seem to cause most of his own enormous difficulties. Not least when he grabs a goose and threatens to off a duck (sic) a day until he gets his budget. The fact that he is also wearing a fake nose and glasses and doing so in front of a TV camera complicates matters even further. Hank tries to explain to one class that comedy and tragedy don't go together, but finds the argument "runs contrary to their experience. Indeed it may run contrary to my own." It runs decidedly against Richard Russo's approach in Straight Man, and the result is a hilarious and touching novel.