By Richard Russo
391 pages, $25
I don't often start laughing the moment I open a novel, continue all the way through and wind up roaring at the end, but I did all three while reading "Straight Man," Richard Russo's unexpectedly funny novel about academic life. Maybe "unexpectedly" is a little strong; Russo has from the start combined an eye for the comedy of human weakness with the impeccable timing of the born gagster.
In the past, however, that humor has been like a coat of bright acrylic sprayed over scrap iron, as he has written largely about the gritty, hardscrabble lives of men in New York's depressed Mohawk Valley, who drink more avidly than they work and fail more passionately than they succeed. Those who have not read Russo yet will find a distillation of his world in the film "Nobody's Fool," starring Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Jessica Tandy. Russo, who grew up in Gloversville, has written about the life of economic depression and male self-defeat with compassion and literary poise, but who knew that he could also body-slam the academy or be this wickedly funny?
When William Henry "Hank" Devereaux Jr.'s wife, Lily, leaves home for a job interview in Philadelphia, she tells him that she fears he will be either in jail or in the hospital by the time she gets home. Because Hank is an English professor and chair of his department at a small college in Railton, Pa., such fears may seem unwarranted. But Lily knows her man, and in no time at all he is on national television, wearing fake eyeglasses and a false nose, holding a goose by its neck and telling the camera: "So here's the deal. Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget. This is a non-negotiable demand. I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night."
When the story hits the local TV news and then "Good Morning America," Hank becomes a celebrity and a threat; his wife and CEO are not amused.
Hank Devereaux is chair-by-default, the job having been dropped in his lap when his friend Teddy Barnes was run out of office by a vote of no confidence. Railton's is a fractious department with 15 grievances pending, more than the rest of the university's put together, and Hank's colleagues reasoned that he was the least threatening alternative for an interim job until an outsider could be hired. "My lack of political acumen, coupled with my perverse inclination to side occasionally with my enemies . . . my inattention to the details of political machination, and my failures of short-term memory made me, my colleagues thought, the perfect compromise candidate for the temporary chair of our hopelessly divided department. How much harm could I do in a year?"
Plenty, it turns out, because Hank Devereaux is a self-confessed "loose cannon" whose "short tenure as chair . . . will be remembered as rule by exasperation." He has already exasperated one colleague to assault, the (self-published) poet Gracie DuBois, who swung a notebook at him and gigged his nose with the spiral end, opening a nasty gash in one nostril. That's just a day's work in a menagerie that includes Paul Rourke, a former seminarian who threatens Hank regularly with violence; Billy Quigley, an alcoholic who harasses Hank nightly by phone, and Phineas (Finny) Coomb, a gay manic-depressive who once went off his meds and came to school in a black satin dress, pearls and high heels, bellowing down the hallway, "Blessings, my good people, on this glorious day that God has made." One colleague advised Finney against pearls before 5, while Billy Quigley offered him a belt from his flask. "I've drunk with uglier broads than you. . . . Not much uglier though."
Is this a ship of fools or a typical English department, or is that a distinction worth making? Sure, this reads like the academy according to Disney, but cartooning is the indispensable tool of comedy, and Russo, who has taught in English departments in Maine and Pennsylvania, knows this cast of characters well enough to keep his cartooning close to the mark.
Right on the mark is a budget meltdown that will require dismissals -- the economics of the Rust Belt in the groves of academe -- and in preparation for which, Hank's colleagues believe, he has already handed in his hit list. The university's CEO does indeed ask Hank for a list, warning that a 20 percent cut is on the way. "You can't stop a tidal wave. All you can do is find high ground and take your friends with you."
To which Hank answers: "If we're going to save Hank Devereaux's friends and drown his enemies, we can cut a lot more than 20 percent." If "Straight Man" runs aground anywhere, it is in the character of Hank Devereaux himself, who is as opaque to us beyond a point as he is opaque to himself. Sure, we know that he is a devotee of rationalist philosopher William of Occam, who gave us the principle of Occam's Razor: In seeking explanation, you shall not multiply entities unnecessarily.
We know about his father, the philandering English professor William Henry Devereaux Sr., who invented literary theory and took up with students in his seminars. And we know about his hysterical prostate. We know that outfield is his spiritual position and that he enjoys being the fly in everyone else's ointment. But what does he want?
Confronted with that very question by his dean, after a week of mayhem, Hank replies decisively, "I want . . . to pee," and dashes out to the men's room, where he promptly passes out and must be rushed to the hospital.
There is more, so much more, including Hank hiding in the rafters of the humanities building after soaking his pants during a nap and having to hide from his colleagues. Seen later, wet and sooty, by his son-in-law, he is asked: "What the hell happened to you? Don't tell me another poet."
"Teaching English isn't the clean work it used to be," he explains. "Most people don't realize." If I told you that Richard Russo's "Straight Man" adds up to a significant statement about existence, or the university, I'd be kidding you, but if I said that its relentless patter of punch lines was ribbed and muscled with common sense, shrewd humanity, uncommon warmth, vivid characters and a swift and absorbing plot I would not be, and so I will say exactly that.