I just finished Straight Man, by Richard Russo for my Tuesday night book group. We, meaning the reading public, are supposed to be enamored of Richard Russo, the author of Empire Falls, because he's written award winning books. I have to say, however, that though I attempted to read Empire Falls, it bored me half to death in the first 25 pages, and that Straight Man is also a book I never would have finished had it not been assigned to me. I picked up another book that was recommended by a web site, called "Tales from the Town of Widows" by James Canon, and I was equally unimpressed by that volume, which was supposed to be somehow Cervantes-like, and was instead full of horrible characters leading dull and depressing lives.
But I digress, as does Mr Russo, constantly and in the most annoying fashion possible, in this novel.
Straight man is about the chair of the English Department at a small Pennsylvania University named William Henry Devereaux, Jr, who has the irritating habit of using his entire moniker when referring to himself. Hank Devereaux thinks of himself as a loose cannon, a witty and urbane man, and a good person, when he is, in actuality, none of these things. He's a coward, a man bent on lusting after a variety of women who are not his wife, though he claims to love his wife,(Lily, who sounds like a rather hard nosed b*tch, but then, if you're not a complete bimbo in this novel, then you're a vicious b*tch, because that's the only two kinds of women Russo can conceive of, apparently)and who has nothing but contempt for most of the people he knows, including his friends, whom he mercilessly lambasts mentally if not verbally.
We are supposed to find all the machinations of the English department highly amusing, and I suppose the bizarre characters are supposed to make us laugh at their stupid antics. I found instead that there was nothing but horrible mean-spirited portrayals of people and that the cynical jokes were not even remotely funny. The entire book was depressing and full of cruelty and vitriol. Hank hates his father, who was an academic and very cold and distant, who left Hank and his snobbish mother when Hank was a teenager. Though he didn't have a great relationship with his father, Hank tried to kill himself but was rescued by his mother who told him that they would jointly forget about him, and move on with their lives. So Hank moves on to a life he detests, running a department of incompetant fools who have it out for his lazy, drunken self. At one point, Hank tells a TV news reporter that he will kill a duck a day on campus if he doesn't get his budget for the year. He never does it, of course, but some nutball writing student does it for him, causing Hank to spend a lot of time dodging the campus police and animal rights activists. The only decent prose in the book is in Hanks op/ed pieces for the local newspaper. Other than that, the prose is bogged down by details that are unimportant to plot movement and boring narrations to boot. Hank is having problems with his prostate, though he believes, because his father suffered with kidney stones, that they must be the culprit in his problem as well, and a great deal of the book is spent with Hank describing his inability to urinate, or the small amounts that he urinates and that he has to go to the bathroom all the time. Way too much time is spent with discussions of Hanks penis, which made me believe that if any novel could be called the opposite of chick lit, this would be it. I really could care less about Hanks penis or his problems urinating, and I was horrified to think that there are a number of men whose minds probably work just like Hanks, with constant reference to their groin, women they'd like to get into bed, and men that they hate, yet still go out to bars with and drink themselves into a stupor. There are a number of long descriptions of hangovers, vomit and other grotesque bodily functions, but again, I assume this is integral to 'guy lit' As there was nothing enlightening, entertaining or informative about this book, I can't really say I'd recommend it to anyone, unless I happened to know some cynical academic men who want to read about a loser professor and his dept of outrageous characters, none of whom are likable or worth reading about.
Russo has been compared to several famed classic authors, but the only one I think he can lay claim to being like is Stendahl, who is the worst classics author in the world, as far as I am concerned.