Straight Man: A Novel

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Straight Man: A Novel

by Richard Russo

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group | June 9, 1998 | Trade Paperback

Straight Man: A Novel is rated 3.75 out of 5 by 4.
In this uproarious new novel, Richard Russo performs his characteristic high-wire walk between hilarity and heartbreak.  Russo's protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., 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 more savagely divided than the Balkans.  

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 and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 416 pages, 8 × 5.16 × 0.87 in

Published: June 9, 1998

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375701907

ISBN - 13: 9780375701900

Found in: Humorous

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Pulitzer prize winner tries his hand at comedy Straight Man is a really funny novel. Following the misadventures of an English professor at a liberal arts college in small town America, it is one of Russo’s funniest novels to date. If you like seeing really smart people do some really stupid things, this is the book for you. A great and entertaining read.
Date published: 2010-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding I've read all of Stan Russo's works and if any deserve a Pulitzer Prize it was this one. Clever, well written, and very funny. One of the few times I've laughed out loud while reading.
Date published: 2009-05-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I am unavoidably the subject of my own dubious contemplations and I’ve got my reasons. The main character in this novel, William Henry Devereaux is an unconventional chairman of the English department. Approaching fifty, he doesn’t seem to have changed much from his earlier days especially with being accident prone. He has moments of wittiness but remains sarcastic if not a little morose about his own existence. This can be felt with the way he interacts with his friends (especially Teddy who from day one has been embarrassingly pining for his wife) co-workers and other family members. His wife Lily knows him better than he even knows himself yet at times throughout the book, there’s an underlying sadness to their relationship as he doubts her fidelity and drifts off into imagining his percentile love for other women! Chaos erupts at work and the idea of a mid life crisis coming to fruition creeps over the pages, but it still doesn’t feel like anything much is happening until the last few chapters of the book where Hank’s character has evolved into much more than what was displayed at the beginning and simple realizations about life are at the forefront.
Date published: 2008-11-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Taking the Duck by the Neck Who'd have thought that grabbing a duck by the neck on local television could change a man's life forever? Richard Russo not only makes it seem possible, but inescapably necessary. Clever writing, memorable characters and a famous duck make for some lively reading. A definite good read for the average schmuck (but not for avid ducks' rights activists).
Date published: 2000-01-13

– More About This Product –

Straight Man: A Novel

Straight Man: A Novel

by Richard Russo

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 416 pages, 8 × 5.16 × 0.87 in

Published: June 9, 1998

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375701907

ISBN - 13: 9780375701900

Read from the Book

Chapter IWhen my nose finally stops bleeding and I've disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in. June, his wife, whose sense of self-worth is not easily tilted, drives a new Saab. "That seat goes back," Teddy says, observing that my knees are practically under my chin.When we stop at an intersection for oncoming traffic, I run my fingers along the side of the seat, looking for the release. "It does, huh?""It's supposed to," he says, sounding academic, helpless.I know it's supposed to, but I give up trying to make it, preferring the illusion of suffering. I'm not a guilt provoker by nature, but I can play that role. I release a theatrical sigh intended to convey that this is nonsense, that my long legs could be stretched out comfortably beneath the wheel of my own Lincoln, a car as ancient as Teddy's Civic, but built on a scale more suitable to the long-legged William Henry Devereauxs of the world, two of whom, my father and me, remain above ground.Teddy is an insanely cautious driver, unwilling to goose his little Civic into a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. "The cars are spaced just wrong. I can't help it," he explains when he sees me grinning at him. Teddy's my age, forty-nine, and though his features are more boyish, he too is beginning to show signs of age. Never robust, his chest seems to have become more concave, which emph
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From the Publisher

In this uproarious new novel, Richard Russo performs his characteristic high-wire walk between hilarity and heartbreak.  Russo's protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., 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 more savagely divided than the Balkans.  

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 and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down.

From the Jacket

In this uproarious new novel, Richard Russo performs his characteristic high-wire walk between hilarity and heartbreak. Russo's protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., 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 more savagely divided than the Balkans.
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 and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down.

About the Author

Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. He has written five novels: Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls, and a collection of stories, The Whore’s Child.

From Our Editors

In "the funniest serious novel . . . since "Portnoy's Complaint"" ("New York Times Book Review"), the bestselling author of "Nobody's Fool" introduces Henry Deveraux--reluctant chairman of the English department at a badly underfunded college--who's slowly coming to terms with his dysfunctional life

Bookclub Guide

Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. He has written five novels: Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls, and a collection of stories, The Whore’s Child.

1. Why does Hank begin his tale with the story about his parents getting him a dog? What does this story tell us about the Devereaux family, and of Hank's place within it? "To me, his son, William Henry Devereaux, Sr., is most real standing in his ruined cordovan loafers, leaning on the handle of a borrowed shovel, examining his dirty, blistered hands, and receiving my suggestion of what to name a dead dog" [p. xvii], Hank writes. What is it about the moment, and the act, that shows up Devereaux, Sr.'s essential realty?

2. Why did Hank decide to become a writer, and an English professor?

3. "Teddy belongs to that vast majority who believe that love isn't something you kid about. I don't see how you could not kid about love and still claim to have a sense of humor" [p. 7]. Is this the real Hank talking, or is it part of the compulsive cynicism that his mental state has engendered? Is it in fact a cynical observation, or simply a true one?

4. Early in the book, various characters, including Lily and Hank's mother, let Hank know that they are worried about him. What symptoms of distress and instability does Hank show in the first half of the book? How do we, the readers, know that there is in fact something to worry about?

5. Why does Hank have persistent fantasies of seeing Lily with other men? Do these fantasies represent his fears, or his desires?

6. Hank dreads his colleagues moving to Allegheny Wells and becoming his neighbors. Lily wonders why: "Jacob Rose is your friend," she says. "There's nothing wrong with Finny and Marie" [p. 29]. Is she right: are they his friends? If so, why has Hank become so suspicious of them?

7. Why has Julie chosen to build a replica of her parents' house? Why does Russell hate it, while liking Hank and Lily's house? What does Russell and Julie's stalemate over the house tell us about their marriage, and their life together?

8. "Anger . . . is an emotion that's foreign to me" [p. 52], says Hank. Is that true? What signs of anger do you find in his behavior? Why might he choose to suppress anger?

9. What effect does the academic tenure system have upon the tenured professors themselves? When Lily goes on her job interview, Hank finds himself filled with admiration for her; "Tenured these last fifteen years, I find it hard to imagine being in that position again, of allowing myself to be judged" [p. 59]. Why does Hank make his surprising career decision at the end of the novel?

10. Why does Russo call the first portion of the novel "Occam's Razor"? William of Occam, says Hank, "sought to reconcile Faith with rational inquiry" [p. 107]. Would you say that this describes Hank's search during the course of the novel?

11. "In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man" [p. 106]. What does Hank mean by this? Is the meaning of the novel's title clear after Hank makes this statement?

12. Why does Hank keep harping on William Cherry, the man who lay down on the town's railroad tracks?

13. Why has Hank never written another book after his first, quite successful one? Is there any indication that he will write one in the future: that is, after the action of the novel has ended?

14. The character of Hank's mother is a complex one. What does she want for herself? For Hank? What bargains has she made with life? What has she given up? Is there any chance, at the end, for her and Hank to become close to one another?

15. Why does Hank feel exhilaration rather than fear when he suspects he may have prostate cancer? Is this feeling related to his fascination with William Cherry? With his fantasies about Lily?

16. West Central Pennsylvania University is clearly a mediocre institution; when it comes to hiring the new chairperson, for instance, Hank admits that "to hire someone distinguished would be to invite comparison with ourselves, who were undistinguished" [p. 18]. Part of middle age, for many people, is settling for the second-rate, the acceptance of life's inevitable limitations. "We have believed, all of us, like Scuffy the Tugboat, that we were made for better things. . . . We've preferred not to face the distinct possibility that if we'd been made for better things, we'd have done those things" [p. 132-3]. Does this process of settling, or acceptance, diminish Hank, or does it strengthen him? Why does Russo include the Spender poem on page 207?

17. How does Hank's midlife crisis compare with that of his father at Columbia? Is Hank's crisis successful: that is, does he resolve the pain and fear that has begun to emerge from his subconscious and take over his life? Did Hank's father resolve any such issues when he broke down at Columbia? What might the father's present emotional state have to do with his having coped, or refusing to cope, with that breakdown? What do his changing attitudes towards Dickens signify, and what does his admission that he had misjudged Dickens tell us about his mental state?