Academic Hack

Straight Man by Richard Russo.  Vintage Contemporaries.  391 pp. $14.00. ****

I read this book because of Jennifer Senior’s review of Richard Russo’s latest book, in which she called Straight Man a better academic novel than David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy.  I was so impressed by that remark, and the general tenor of Senior’s review, that I bought Straight Man and immediately read it, might be about to do the same with Empire Falls (which won a Pulitzer Prize).  I have a great sympathy for the characters Russo writes about.  I also the man’s attitude.

That having been said, I was mildly disappointed by the first two-thirds of this novel.  It was funny but not howlingly so.  I recognized the academic types who surrounded our narrator, and Russo captured the hellish atmosphere (according to J.P. Sartre, hell is other people) of any academic department: you’re stuck with these people, and their endlessly repeating foibles, for the rest of your life.  One semester after another, the same old crap.

But the final third of the novel utterly redeemed it, made me agree with Jennifer Senior, and put the novel up there with the best academic novels of all time.  It isn’t that it got suddenly funnier, though it did.  It got far more interesting, and poignant, as various plot elements came together.  I was riveted by the last hundred pages, didn’t want the book to end.

Our narrator is William Henry Deveraux, Jr., an English professor at a college in the middle of the Rust Belt, somewhere in Pennsylvania.  He’s on the cusp of being fifty years old, loves his wife but is also half in love with several other women, enjoys his job but is tired of it, still likes to write but doesn’t have much energy for it.  Hank Deveraux—unlike his creator—stopped writing books after his first novel, which not only got him his full professorship, though he has no PhD, but enabled him to buy a couple of lots to protect the land around his house, earning the enmity of various colleagues.  His book didn’t do well but he hasn’t had any compulsion to write another.  Instead he writes columns and reviews for various local papers, and keeps up with his teaching.

The novel’s central conflict involves the rumor that the university, which has perpetual money problems, is going to cut all of its faculty by some given percentage, and that the department heads will make the decisions.  There’s some truth to the rumor, although department head Deveraux is not in on some nefarious plot, and he has not decided, keeps insisting he will not decide, who to cut.  People are nevertheless worried, as well they might be, and they have the same turf battles that are endemic to any department, at any university.  Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and Deveraux wears the battered crown of English department head at this crummy university.

Hank is one of Russo’s heavy drinking, easy going, confident, sarcastic, witty characters, kind of an academic version of Sully from Nobody’s Fool.  Jennifer Senior sees this as one of the two archetypes that Russo keeps hammering away at.  What’s interesting in the novel, though, is not the academic infighting, entertaining as that is, but the family that surrounds Hank, in both directions.  One of his three daughters lives in town with him, has built a house that is exactly like his, and has run into serious marital problems, a touchy situation for Hank because he genuinely likes her husband.

More interesting on the family front is the fact that not only does Hank’s mother live in the same town, and teach as an adjunct in the same university (is he going to give her the axe?), but his father was a famous English professor, an academic star, who deserted the family early on to run away with one of his grad students, then left her for a still younger grad student, then her for another.  Hank has followed his parents into the same profession, but has staked out different territory altogether, more a creative writing teacher than an academic, also a faithful husband to an interesting woman, though she’s off looking after her own father for much of this novel.  Hank’s father shows up at the end as a surprisingly sympathetic, though limited person, one who relates deeply and emotionally to literature but not to other human beings.  He doesn’t seem at all concerned at the end of his life with the way he treated his son.  He’s deeply concerned that he might have been too hard on Charles Dickens.

Straight Man is not about a mid-life crisis so much as it is about a fifty year old man looking back on his career and wondering if he has done all he should, or if he got stuck in the place that was easiest and most comfortable (though English professorships don’t grow on trees).  It has a vast cast of amusing characters, though I found them slightly hard to keep track of.  I also wondered sometimes why a man who had published only one not-too-successful novel, and was stuck in a second-rate academic job, wasn’t feeling more of a financial pinch (I think that’s because his creator is a highly successful novelist).  But as I said, this novel really picks up in its last third, as the academic and family matters come together in a roaring finish.  Hank—like most of us—doesn’t resolve the questions about his life (which for an academic have a periodic quality, like the endlessly repeating semesters).  But he finds a way to keep going.