24 Following

Amber's Thoughts

Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series



Seriously Funny Academic Satire

Straight Man - Richard Russo

I read this because a colleague, an art professor whose work I respect, quoted it in his acceptance speech for a faculty achievement award. He chose lines that made me think the protagonist of the novel might rise above the stultifying absurdities that can take up much of an academic life. It’s more realistic than that, though. His liberation is partial and therefore more believable.


Parts are so funny I really did laugh out loud. Other aspects of the story are comic in a sadder and more uncomfortable way. I found myself repeatedly reminded of an English department in which a friend taught and another studied for her Master’s. (We’re much duller in Health and Exercise Science. My field doesn’t attract the drinkers.) Russo nails the characters and their marriages and extra-marital excursions or fantasies all too well. The story is framed by the narrator’s relationship with his famous father, a literary theorist, remote and intellectual, and his mother, a professor who isn’t much warmer, and the contrast with his own healthier and more affectionate marriage to a high school teacher with a passion for her work.


Writing for the local paper in downtrodden Railton PA, he uses the pseudonym “Lucky Hank” for satirical articles about the college where he teaches, which I assumed to be a reference to Lucky Jim, though he never says so. It’s the only creative writing the professor does anymore, though he was a famous novelist once. (He is aware of the nascent urge to write more, but tells himself that bad books call to writers with the same siren song as good ones.)The fact Hank’s secretary writes more and better fiction than he does may be Russo’s commentary on the effects of academic life on creativity.


Occam’s razor is a running theme, a statement by a 14th century logician that one should shave away superfluous explanations and choose the simplest one that describes a phenomenon (if I understand it correctly). Hank names his dog Occam, and likes that dog for his simple joy in life, running mindlessly in circles, sniffing people’s groins, and other canine pleasures. Meanwhile, Hank’s great theorist father is incapable of connecting his emotions with his life.


The plot meandered at times, and I had the feeling the author looked at it at some point and realized he’d created a monster. Not an ugly one, but a big, messy one with too many loose ends. The only way he could tie them all up was with one whopping long epilogue, long on summary and short on scenes and dialog. When it does revert to more showing than telling, it becomes more like a proper final chapter and has a delightfully funny moment.


Overall, this is a good read, each scene a great story within itself, with some brilliant insights and sharply drawn characters. I was tempted to quote many of the best lines—the book is full of gems—but I’ll leave those for other readers to discover.