Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Straight Man is one of my favorite books. I find it laugh out loud funny and I don’t say that about many books. The main character and narrator, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., aka Hank, is the chairman of an English department at a college in Pennsylvania.

Here’s how one committee meeting ends:

“The spiral notebook caught me full in the face with enough force to bring tears to my eyes. Everyone, including Finny, who brought to meetings he chaired the emotional equilibrium of a cork in high seas, looked on, bug-eyed. But what confused me was the fact that the notebook Gracie used remained, unaccountably, right in front of my face. For an irrational moment I actually thought she had written something on the cover that she was inviting me to read. Cross-eyed, I tried to examine what was before my nose. Only when I realized that Gracie was in fact trying to retrieve her notebook, and that each tentative tug sent a sharp pain all the way up into my forehead, only then did I realize that the barbed end of the spiral ring had hooked and punctured my right nostril, that I was gigged like a frog and leaning across the table toward Gracie like a bumbling suitor begging a kiss.”

It’s a tense time at the college with rumors of massive cuts in state funding and, therefore, potential faculty cuts. Hank is also dealing with turning 50, his professor father coming to town after leaving him and his mother 40 years ago, his daughter’s troubled marriage, and animal rights activists protesting his threats against a goose.

It’s a fun read. You’ll especially appreciate if you’ve ever sat through endless committee meetings. I also learned about scrapple – a common listing at breakfast restaurants in Pennsylvania, yet I could never get a straight answer about exactly what it was.

“It turns out that scrapple is like a lot of food that’s conceptually challenging. That is, better than you might expect. We chew our intestines in silence until Mr. Purty sees me grinning and reads my thought. ‘I’d never ask your mother to eat scrapple,’ he assures me.”

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