Thursday, April 05, 2007

Done it before, probably do it again

Occasionally, I have a perverse reaction to book recommendations. The chances of me reading a book decrease with each repetitious recommendation. I have an old friend who constantly recommended Richard Russo's Straight Man. Now there was every reason for me to read it. For one I really liked Russo's Empire Falls. For another, the book is both literate and humorous. But no, I perversely for years avoided reading it.

Having finally read and loved the book, I can see my actions are thematically consistent with the book itself. Like other Russo characters, the hero, Hank Devereaux Jr. is a man dissatisfied with his position in life. He He hasn't published anything in 20 years and is realizing the small school he thought was the lauching pad for his academic career, is in fact his career. He has ended up where he is in part because of his propensity to goad others. He started down the path of the academy to spite his philandering and abandoning father. He tweaks his colleagues just because he can. And he surrounds himself with misfits, perhaps out of love for their own gentle oddities.

I've made the book seem serious, which it is on the thematic level. It is also a hilarious read. Not in the crack a smile sense, but in the laugh out loud sense. In addition to a study of midlife crisis, the book is also a satire of academic life. The petty politics, the strident and zoned out students, the creeping corporatization and the fads are all humorously exposed. One of Hank's (male) colleagues in the English department rejects books as phallocentric and will only teach sitcoms. He is also called "Orshe" by the rest of the staff due to his reflexive response to every use of the pronoun "he."

This book is a rarity and I am thrilled to see that Russo has another book, Bridge of Sighs, due in late 2007. Yes, it includes a middle aged man in the Northeast, but as the titles alludes, it is also set in Venice.

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