Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Straight Man

I really enjoy's baseball analyst Keith Law. So much so, I asked Beardy to make a baseball card of him. We seem to share similar tastes in a bunch of things, especially books. Plus, he's a good writer/analyst. Shoot, I even have his Twitter feed in my RSS Reader (the only person about whom I can make such a claim (or would want to)).

In a chat of his recently, another reader, inspired by Law's love of books, stated that he wanted to become a reader and asked Law for a good first book to read. Law went with Richard Russo's Straight Man. Law is a big fan of Russo's but I had never heard him mention this book. Some of Russo's other books have been on my to-read list but I haven't gotten around to him until now.

Straight Man was fantastic. The story takes place at a college in a small Pennsylvania town. The main character, William Henry Devereaux, Jr. ("Hank"), is an English professor at the college and interim chair of the department. He is fifty years old but often behaves like a man much younger (say twelve). His father, a noted professor, left him and his mother for one of his graduate students when Hank was younger but has now reappeared in his life for the first time in decades. The department has no budget yet and Hank is suffering the brunt of the blame. The stress in his life has resulted in urinary problems. He fantasizes about his wife cheating on him. Hank has a lot of problems.

I think what makes this book great is that Russo is able to take a guy with a lot of problems (and the other characters do, too) and show the humorous side. Like in real life, there are good moments and bad. Russo balances the dark with the light extremely well. The characters are flawed. There are alcoholics, jerks, professors who sleep with students, guys who cheat on their wife, a couple who overspend their means. People who are greedy, envious, lazy. In short, they are normal.

Maybe a little funnier than usual. And the professors in the book might sleep with their students more than is typical (at least I'd like to think it's atypical). But really the human factor makes the characters interesting and many of them likable.

That being said, the more I think about it, the more I think the book might be a little light on plot. There's tons of conflict, the conflicts are resolved in a very nice fashion. The book moves fast with a lot happening just over the course of a week. I think the frenetic pacing coupled with the complex characters carries the book.

This was definitely one of the best books I have read this year and I look forward to reading more of Russo down the road.

I also re-read Simon Rich's Free-range Chickens. Not so much because it's a great book, but more because it is such a quick read. Seriously, twenty minutes tops. Something to read when you need a quick laugh.

Also finished my friend Jason's novel (at least my first time through it. I intend to go through it again in the near future). Since it has not been published, I'm not going to review it but I will say that it would fall in the one-star range for me. I'm hoping he does get it published.

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