I just finished reading Straight Man, the Richard Russo novel that centers around the life of a regional college English department and that is often mentioned in the same breath as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, David Lodge’s novels, and the granddaddy of the genre, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. I didn’t find Russo’s book of a piece with these others; it’s too well-meaning. It’s funny and perceptive, but ultimately soft on all its characters, its barbs a breed apart from Amis’s and Jarrell’s skewering glee. By comparison to them, it’s positively affectionate.
While I appreciate that quality in a book, I never entirely warmed up to Russo’s warm-hearted satire, except for isolated strands within an densely populated, highly eventful plot. For instance: the main character, English professor William Henry Devereaux Jr., is haunted through the book by the suicide of a local who shares his name:
Within sight of where we sit waiting to turn onto Pleasant Street, a man named William Cherry, a lifelong Conrail employee, has recently taken his life by lying down on the track in the middle of the night. At first the speculation was that he was one of the men laid off the previous week, but the opposite turned out to be true. He had in fact just retired with his pension and full benefits. On television his less fortunate neighbors couldn’t understand it. He had it made, they said.
Later the narrator voices his “deep conviction that when William Cherry’s severed head was borne up the tracks by a train in the direction of Bellemonde, no one, not even his loved ones, suspected what was in it.” And finally:
After all, not far from where I sit, a man my age, a man named William Cherry has recently surrendered his life by lying down on the track and allowing something larger and more powerful than himself to bear away and out of this world some pain I will never know.
That’s a gorgeous, powerful sentence, if also a disturbingly seductive brief for the ameliorative power of suicide. It moved me as much as anything in the novel.
Also very wonderful is a thread that proves the linchpin of the narrator’s relationship with his imposing, distant father–a prominent literary critic of his time who, toward the end of the book, returns to his family after decades apart. In midcareer the father, William Henry Devereaux Sr., had rescued himself from a late-onset fear of speaking that threatened to derail his career by, in part, delivering an especially impassioned indictment of Charles Dickens.
The class was on Dickens, a writer my father particularly despised for his sentimentality and lack of dramatic subtlety, and never did a scholar lay more complete waste to a dead writer than my father to Charles Dickens that day….He had given the same lecture before, but never like this. In a fit of unplanned dramatic ecstasy, he read Jo’s death scene from Bleak House to such devastating comic effect that by the time he’d finished the entire class was on the floor. Then they got up off the floor and gave him a standing ovation. This was what they’d paid their money for. Finally, they felt themselves to be in the presence of greatness, as they slammed Bleak House shut with contempt.
Perhaps you can sense what’s coming. On his father’s return to his wife and son, the two men go for a walk.
“You may find this strange,” he says, “but I’ve started rereading Dickens.”
Clearly he imagines he’s paying the author a compliment by returning in his final years to a writer whose mawkishness he’s derided over a long career. ‘Much of the work is appalling, of course. Simply appalling,” my father concedes, genuflecting before his previous wisdom on the subject. “Most of it, probably. But there is something there, isn’t there. Some power…something”–he searches for the right word here–“transcendent, really.”
“I feel almost,” he says, “as though I had sinned against that man.”
This remarkable passage doesn’t end here, but I don’t want to spoil it entirely for any of you who may yet read this book. The book’s main story of small-campus egos and professional politics run amok is amusing enough, nicely observed, and deftly written. But these minor moments made the book worthwhile for me.