The only silver lining on that cloud of working until 3:00 a.m. the other night is that while I was waiting for the work to come in, I got to finish reading Straight Man by Richard Russo. Frequent Verbatim visitor and funny commenter MommyRalf had sent it to me, hoping that I would enjoy it and find it as hilarious as she did. Well, I sure did.
You may remember my praise of Russo's Pulitzer winner, Empire Falls. At the risk of repeating myself: Man, can he ever write. His settings put you right on the scene, his character development leaves you wondering about these "people" long after the book has ended, and the plot is tight and well wrought. Every sentence is carefully crafted but comes off as effortlessly elegant. There really were sentences and even entire passages that made me utter an audible "Wow." When I wasn't busy saying "Wow," I was either blinking back tears or laughing out loud. Really—and you know I don't laugh very often when reading a novel. The book is really, really funny, whether or not you've spent much time in the groves of academe.
It all takes place during a week in April at a dumpy little college in western Pennsylvania. Our "straight man" is William Henry Deveraux, Jr., otherwise known as Hank. Hank is 50 years old and has a dog named Occam, which tells you a lot about his philosophy of life. Hank is the reluctant chair of the English Department, which is like one big, not-terribly-happy dysfunctional family. All the tenured profs realize that they're trapped there; they want out but don't know how to make it happen. Over the course of the week, Hank is rumored to have provided the chancellor with a list of English profs to be fired per the threatened budget cuts (He would never do that, or would he?) and accused of killing some geese who live on a campus pond (Well, he did threaten to, didn't he?). He also decides that his wife must be having an affair with the dean; learns that his younger daughter's marriage is on the rocks; spends a night in jail; discovers that his father, the venerable William Henry Devereaux, Sr., is coming back to town; and can't help noticing that expelling even the merest dribble of pee is excruciating. And the merest dribble is about all he can manage anyhow.
The entire story is told in Hank's voice, and what a great one he has. Everyone who knows him complains that he never takes anything seriously, but we know better. His thoughts and observations are often so poignant that I got teary-eyed more than once. He just keeps most of it to himself (and us, lucky us). So instead of wanting to give this smart-ass a slap in the face, we end up wishing we could give him a big, warm hug. Russo has masterfully and compassionately combined the humor and pathos of everyday life in Hank, so we feel the nagging despair and worry at the same time that we learn how to laugh off most of it. It takes Hank just a week to discover what really matters in life, and we can all learn a lesson from him.