By Richard Russo
391 pp., $25
University life has served as an irresistible subject for some of the funniest satire in modern literature.
After teaching briefly at Sarah Lawrence College, Mary McCarthy set the standard high with "The Groves of Academe" (1952), her acerbic satire of a liberal college for women. Just two years ago Jane Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State, lambasted a Midwestern university in "Moo: A Novel," (Random House) a bestseller that sprawled across dozens of strange and hilarious characters.
The narrator of the latest addition to this genre, "Straight Man" by Richard Russo, observes wryly that "virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. Sad little vessels all. Scruffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal - to evidence a superior sensibility."
Fortunately, Russo's fully written novel is neither sad nor overwrought for he evinces plenty of elegance and flawless timing. He demonstrates that it's possible to laugh at, and with, someone simultaneously.
The novel opens at the peak of a budget crisis at West Central Pennsylvania University that threatens to fall with particular severity on the English department. Forced into the center of this debate is the reluctant interim chair, William Henry Devereaux Jr., who proudly admits that his "lack of administrative skill is legend."
In a moment of ill-conceived fury he preempts the televised dedication of a new Technical Careers Center by threatening to kill one of the campus geese every day until a budget arrives on his desk.
With outrageous but straight-faced retorts that endear him to us but infuriate his colleagues, Devereaux struggles to endure and even enjoy the contentious characters who despise their jobs at this third-rate university, but like the campus geese are too lazy to fly away.
The author, who taught at Colby College, has assembled the usual cast of temperamental faculty and incompetent administrators that devotees of comic university novels will recognize. There's an earnest young professor so devoted to gender-neutral language that Hank refers to him as "Orshe"; a modern theorist who rejects literature entirely and teaches only from videotapes of television sitcoms; a poet who communicates almost entirely by filing grievances against her colleagues. Here are the frustrated high school teachers and faux scholars who never planned to stay more than a year or two but grew fatally comfortable when the university was expanding and now find themselves trapped by their unmarketability.
Surrounded by accusations of betrayal in a rumor-infested department about to lose 20 percent of its faculty, Devereaux has a deep, redeeming affection for his colleagues as he goads them into open hostility with his straight man routine.
Even the unpublished poet who damages his nose with her spiral binder receives nothing but his benign understanding and ironic asides. "People have only a finite amount of meanness in them," Devereaux observes, "and most times they exhaust it quickly." Though the novel is unrelentingly funny, it is Hank's deep appreciation for his colleagues' humanity that raises it above so many other academic satires.
Life outside the hallowed walls of the university is no more stable for Hank than in his panicked department. While he worries that his long-suffering wife may be having an affair with the dean, he tries not to offer advice to his aliterate daughter as her marriage breaks up. Running beneath this hectic week lies Hank's dread of his brilliant father's return. This repressed, but constant concern about inheriting his errant father's talent, selfishness, and illness, pulls the novel into the psychological depth that confirms the author's extraordinary talent for drawing characters.
Russo writes repartee that crackles with wit but never slides into artifice. Though his characters are often struggling against deep-seated sadness, the force of his wit is enough to convince us that such pain and sadness are not inevitable or final.
The feminist poet with the lethal binder finally admits, "You may not believe me, but I've always liked you, Hank. You're like a character in a good book. Almost real, you know?"
She hits it - and him - on the nose.
* Ron Charles teaches English at John Burroughs School in St. Louis.