An academic cooks his goose

BY NICHOLAS TAYLOR STRAIGHT MAN by Richard Russo Chatto pounds 15.99
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What does Hank Devereaux really want: a new job, an alternative romantic interest, even a sequence of strategic wildfowl murders? Richard Russo raises this question throughout his latest novel. Straight Man sees him on well-trodden turf: the mid-western, small-town scenario, where the quirky, excusable characters are led on, together with their disappointments, and prompted to perform.

The straight man in question is one Professor William Henry Devereaux Junior, and his inability to take the comic lead owes something to his mid-life crisis. Hank seems more at ease talking to his dog, Occam, or the college geese, than to his wife. While his domestic life seems mildly dysfunctional, his university environment resembles a stage farce. The feckless professors who line the seminar rooms of the English department are drunk, disorderly, disenchanted, or all three. They cling to Hank, as Chair of the corpus, to give their lives some meaning, a task he takes a modicum of pleasure in rejecting.

Russo's backdrop is Railton, Pennsylvania, where the once industrious townscape stands empty and the mood compares with "a certain sense of disappointment about such drama resulting in so little consequence". Standing at a polite distance from the town is the residential enclave of Allegheny Wells, home to the academics. The detached houses with their plots of land mark another sort of decline: "Many are for sale and have been since the divorces that spoilt them." Here Hank's daughter Julie and her husband run up debts in building a house identical to that of her parents. Here, also, Hank's university rival Paul Rourke bitterly laments the choice of "lucky Hank" to build on the insect-free side of the valley.

Meanwhile, down in the town, Hank's mother whiles away her twilight years in lessening luxury, and increasing similarity to Norma Desmond. She waits for the errant William Henry Devereaux Sr to return from his frail philanderings in Japan with a Woolf student, and calls on her son to protect her from the vulgar advances of her landlord, Charles Purty.

To compound the sense of breakdown, Hank's father-in-law is charged with murdering a loan shark on his doorstep, his nose is injured by a severe battering from a note-pad-wielding colleague, and he has an aching, though perhaps imaginary, kidney stone to contend with. The question is not so much what does Hank Devereaux want, but want does Hank Devereaux want first?

The humour in this book is as endemic as the misery; both stumble hand in hand through the allotted events. Much of the time, Russo lets Hank occupy the ground of ironist amongst sincere despondents. That distance is often laced with pathos. "What remained to William Henry Devereaux Jr was the gradual day, the inevitable transition from left field to first base, and finally to designated hitter, that misbegotten invention designed to convince the washed up that they're still in the game."

In less practised hands, the melancholic masochist showcasing the absurdities of mankind might have become grating long before the culmination of this tightly packed book. But in Russo we have a skilled manipulator, and the insights into the calamities of everyday existence are introspective and inconsequential in suitably equal measure. While Russo might face accusations of repetition, there is something forgivable about a resurfacing joke in a comfortably comic routine. Providing it's funny.

Hank's journey into doubt is, at large, a crisis for imperial authority: the straight, white, middle-class male, waking up having had his day, to find he is the butt, rather than the instigator, of the joke. But there remains something overridingly wholesome about Allegheny Wells, in spite of the urinary problems and spiral-ended notepads, which ultimately protects the straight man of America: a mode of behaviour which though ironic and specific, remains timeless and removed; a testimony to cheery, optimistic destiny, which isn't altogether laughed off.