Aug 05, 11
Recommended to Armand by:
About half the people I know.
Academics, people in mid-life crisis. Goose haters.
Read from July 12 to August 05, 2011, read count: 1
To summarize: It a beautifully written gem of a book, and it's well worth reading, especially if you can give the author a little wiggle room at the end and be open to the soft ending.
Richard Russo is the writer that I've read the most since joining Goodreads.(With the exception of Jim Butcher (who's in a different class since he writes serialized pulp)), In the last four years, I've read That Old Cape Magic (so-so), Empire Falls (big, smart, and full of heart), and now, Straight Man.
One thing that really interests me about Russo's works are the recurring themes: parents who are academics, marital infidelity (always with the main character's parents), real estate and houses, and the general sense of people (especially main characters) being stuck in their lives. Russo's protagonists tend to be passive and are often surrounded by more virile men who get laid more often and who talk a lot more smack. Russo revisits all off these in Straight Man which is (roughly) about a well-meaning troublemaker of a college professor, William Henry "Hank" Devereux, whose life (career, family ties, long term friendships) bristles, then explodes one fine spring. The whole thing spins into a smartly comic midlife crisis including such elements as the return of his philandering father who feels immense guilt about his critical approach to Charles Dickens, the world's most dysfunctional English Department (and that's saying something), donkey basketball (don't ask), and mortal threats to a passive-aggressive goose. Oh, and hysterical prostate condition. (again, don't ask)
Straight Man is beautifully written and offers a lot of insight into the human condition (especially in an academic context). As a part time teacher myself, I felt like Russo really captures the sense of cultural loss (although I think he's a bit too cynical at times) as colleges comes to value higher education less and less, instead focusing on a model that focuses more on remedial ed. for those who were failed by their high schools / parents and build-your-career programs. That's not to say that remedial ed. And career aren't important. They are precisely important because that's what we need to get by, but you can tell that something's missing which is that there was a time when there an intrinsic value is just being learned.
If there's one small flaw in Straight Man, it's the ending (and that's why I give it four stars instead of five). For a book with a beginning and middle that crackle with the energy of a complicated web of plot, the ending is a "soft fade" of sorts. (In this aspect, it reminds me of the ending of No Country for Old Men, although NCFOM's ending was far worse). In the conclusion of Straight Man, the ends of lot of the big plot points are merely summarized. The stories don't end as much as they drift into ambiguous moments that contain meaning. This isn't bad, but I feel like it would have been better to end with a pie fight or something. Or possibly an armed invasion. Or an invading force armed only with pies and maybe some angry geese thrown in.
In the end Hank, our main man, is strangely unchanged (although his bladder condition improves- don't ask). If he proves anything, it's that he is his own man. And maybe that's what the book is about. Actually, the best thing about the ambiguous ending(s) is that has achieved the desired effect of making me think about life- particularly in context of Hank's midlife crisis- and wonder what it's all about.