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January 21, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | January 21, 2009 |

Nobody does curmudgeon like Richard Russo. My only real experience is with the movie Nobody’s Fool. But he seems to specialize in this bitter middle-to-older aged men in small town America. Russo has managed to create one of modern fiction’s more spectacular bastards in Hank Devereaux, Jr., a loose cannon professor of English at a small Western Pennsylvania college, an insufferable smartass who blithely skips through life being a toolbox. He’s cranky and lecherous, in love with a wife who tolerates him, has no knowledge of the comings and goings of his own grown children who’ve abandoned the nest, and has spent the past year building a seething resentment for the bastards among his fellow cognoscenti in the English Department.

Straight Man was an outstanding read, and a really impressive novel. It manages to be at times wildly slapstick and outrageous, but still rooted in absolute reality. It’s also a staggering blow against academia, particularly collegiate, and all the ridiculous red tape and infighting among typical institutional organizations. It also manages to transcend the most mediocre of genres — that of the writer writing. While most writing programs give you the first rule “Write what you know,” too few follow that up with the more important second statute — “Go out and learn shit so what you know is interesting.”

Devereaux is a cynical smart ass struggling against what to everyone else views as a midlife crisis, but for him is a tacit insistence on not suffering fools. He’s quick to quip, to flirt, to beguile with his wit. He’s instantly likable for being such a dick. He’s the kind of smart that dumb people hate, because they know he’s totally insulting them.

The university threatens cutbacks — something they always do — only this time there’s a list. Supposedly this list involves firing tenured professors and was asked from all the department chairs. Devereaux is the interim chair of English, a department full of hypersensitive scholars, tempestuous poets, and constant coupling. On local television, donning a pair of fake glasses and nose, Devereaux threatens to murder a duck (actually a goose) every day until the school gives the departments the money they’ve demanded. What was obviously a sick joke takes a wild turn. Again, what would be an unforgivably wackiness on the part of most authors comes across as completely logical in Russo.

I will assuredly read more Russo, because hopefully the rest of his stuff is just as interesting (It is! — DR. It’s a mildly breezy read, and it’s fun. It’s got a strange quaintness to it, as if Russo’s never seen a big city. I’d almost accuse him of sheltered beliefs about inner cities if I didn’t know better. But again, it adds to the charm of the bizarre cast of characters he’s assembled.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Books | January 21, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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