STRAIGHT MAN is one of the funniest and most entertaining novels I’ve read. A professor, William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., our straight man, is determined to apply Occam’s Razor (if you have two theories that arrive at the same conclusion, the simpler theory is the best choice) to every situation with hilarious consequences. There is excellent character development and complication of events grounded in a well-written narrative. Below the playfulness are serious considerations about life and missed opportunities. Russo knows the value of enhancing funny with sad, something I now keep in mind.
The novel begins with the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in theater and whenever an author addresses the reader, it is often to achieve the familiarity and conversational tone to draw the reader into a kind of intimacy.
Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simpleminded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.
Richard Russo exemplifies a compassionate and complex view of humanity in his work and STRAIGHT MAN is no exception. Russo, in addition to David Lodge, taught me that when you put your characters through the wringer, you can maintain the sense that they had opposing dreams and intentions, that they didn’t wish to end up where they did. There is a stronger sense of that dynamic in NOBODY’S FOOL, but it’s here as well with Professor Devereaux. Russo is an excellent example to learn the art of creating very human characters who still are very funny.
This comic novel also illustrates the accessibility of writing like you talk, in this case, like an academic. Richard Russo uses it to great effect with deadpan humor. Because his main character is trying to distill events to the simplest explanation, the author simplifies his language and descriptions to mimic that action. When Professor Devereaux reads the “…cinematically inspired – that is, uninspired…” and repugnant story of his student Leo, he describes the process in a long paragraph that reports the content, concluding,
He wonders if the rape scene is overdone. And he wants to assure me that the narrative is not finished. Originally, he’d thought of it as a short story, but now he suspects it may be a novel. Next to the query concerning the rape scene, I write: ‘Always understate necrophilia.’ Then at the bottom of the final page, ‘Let’s talk.’
The professor has pared down his comments, then Russo uses the professor’s last phrase, ‘Let’s talk’ to segue into the next paragraph, as well as the next action, by having another character answer, “Okay let’s,” thereby paring down the narrative, mirroring his advice to Leo.
Russo uses direct, first-person, present tense that is erudite and often hilarious. The narrative is marked with repetitions of words and phrases such as ‘needless to say’ and ‘indeed’ to achieve the tone of an academic:
Needless to say, we end where we began, unpersuaded. My argument, that comedy and tragedy don’t mix, that they must remain discrete, runs contrary to their experience. Indeed, it may run contrary to my own. These students have watched this very class begin in low comedy and end in something, if not serious, at least no longer funny.
In writing the literary comic novel, Russo includes touching moments in difficult relationships as in Professor Devereaux’ relationship with his father and problems as a father with regard to his daughter’s choices – something I keep in mind in order to add depth to comedy, even slapstick, laugh-out-loud comedy. He creates an entire world and just as you accept that this is a complex novel, Russo has another trick up his sleeve: pointing out just how simple life is. Touché.