Sunday, January 6, 2008

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Eric has been trying to get me to read Straight Man for well over a year, and finally gave it to me as a Christmas gift, which pretty much ensures that I will read it, and read it soon (I don't know why, but gift books spend less time on my to-read shelf than other books). I began reading it on Christmas day, and finished on the flight home the day after New Year's.

William Henry Devereaux Jr. (Hank) is the chair of a bickering English department at West Central Pennsylvania University, beset with budget problems and long-standing personal grievances. It sounds like sort of a dry premise, but the events that unfold over the course of the book (which I don't think takes place in much more than a week or two) are surprisingly funny. And yet it's not a comic novel - the story is told with great sincerity.

The first thing I'll say is that, having read Russo's Empire Falls just a couple months ago, I found Straight Man to be entirely different. On reflection, it's clear that they're by the same author - the writing style, the characterization, some of the humor. But in many other ways they are nothing alike. Empire Falls sucked me in from the very beginning, but it took a bit longer for Straight Man to grab me. It was interesting and well written, but it wasn't until about halfway through that I suddenly discovered how attached I was to the characters, and how interested I was to see how everything turned out. Once I reached that point, however, Straight Man became a page-turner. It was funny, I cared about the characters (even the unlikeable ones), and it turned out just the way it needed to.

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