Straight Man

Rating: +

Richard Russo

Like Moo by Jane Smiley, this is another humorous book about the world of academia. The specific subworld being explored in this book is the English department at a smallish university. The department is suffering from budget cuts, vicious departmental politics, and bureaucratic red tape (as I said - it's about academia ;)

The main character is the current acting head of the English department, a minor author in the throes of a midlife crisis, who is hated by most of the rest of the department - either because he refuses to take them seriously, or because they are jealous of his ability to get published.

The chair finds himself, in the time covered by this book, faced with holding the department together while a new chair is being looked for and funding decisions are being made. The university cuts the English department's budget drastically, forcing the chair to go to absurd lengths to get some of the money back. Amongst other things, this includes threatening to kill a duck a day until his budget demands are met. This is a lot funnier than it sounds...he's not a sadistic guy at all.

But chaos at work isn't all that the chair is facing. His wife has to go on a business trip, and he worries about whether she is having an affair, and whether he ought to worry about that or not. His daughter and son-in-law live down the road from him and have a variety of problems that he is pulled into the middle of. Other bits of academic intrigue enter the picture. He spends most of the book thinking about whether he wants to leave academia and write full time, or maybe go off to a different university. It's definitely a book about a guy handling his midlife crisis.

I liked this book, but I didn't find it as funny as I think I was supposed to. I only laughed a little bit, though there was a lot that at least hit "amusing" on the humor scale for me. It was well written and the characters were either well developed or useful stereotypes for the main character to play against. Overall, a '+'.


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