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Richard Russo: Straight Man

What every English department needs is a straight man says William Henry (‘Hank”) Devereaux, Jr., professor of English literature at Western Pennsylvania University and Acting Chair of the English department and most definitely not a straight man. The English department, indeed the whole university is in chaos, the budget is being cut, jobs are being lost and Hank Devereaux has problems urinating and is filmed on TV threatening ducks. The plot is quite simple. Devereaux is acting chair and does not particularly enjoy the job. All his colleagues, each with their foibles, are at each other’s throats and at the throats of the university administration. This university is, of course, Dilbert-land. It is a university but could be any major institution, except it is unlikely that, in many institutions, you could get away with calling your boss Numbnuts as Devereaux does. Devereaux, instread of coming out fighting, is determined to go down with the ship, indeed to bring it down, as long as he can get a good laugh doing so.

Not only is he likely to lose his job but his wife, whom he dearly loves, may be having an affair (something which rather appeals to him), his daughter’s marriage may be breaking up, he is writer who has not written for many years and he absolutely has to pee. This could all be very sad but, in fact, it is hilarious. What makes it hilarious is firstly that Russo has managed to viciously satirise all the characters, while maintaining an affection for them and, secondly, has managed to create a range of characters who are individual and human, while bordering on the ludicrous at the same time.

Devereaux is definitely not going to play the game. He is not going to play the game of the dean, his old friend, Jacob Rose. He is certainly not going to play the game of University CEO Dickie Pope. He is not going to play the game of his mother, his wife and his daughter. Nor is he going to play the game of his colleagues, all of whom are rarely united but almost manage to do so in opposition to him. He is not going to play the game of his hapless students, who are really not very good. He is not even going to play the game of the goose in the University pond, whom he almost strangles.

There is a serious intent here but, like his hero, Russo rightly wants to go for the cheap laugh and succeeds famously. This is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time and William Henry Devereaux, Jr. deserves to be a literary hero to us all.

Publishing history

First published 1997 by Random House