October 12, 2008

Book Review Time

I've been mulling over the last book I read for most of the last week. The funny parts have returned over and over and made me laugh almost as hard the second or third time around as when I first read them. The poignant and thought-provoking parts also wander in and out of the recesses of my brain and I ponder what they all meant. For both poignancy and humor I loved the book, but can I truly recommend a book to anyone else that contains frequent use of the f-word (among others) and where the main character has, um, shall we say a vivid imagination about his wife?

Oh well. I'm recommending it anyway, because despite those parts, I think the book is definitely a worthwhile one. I have not giggled, chuckled and laughed so hard reading anything quite a while. Nor have I read a book that made me think about life and the living of it in quite the way this one does.

I suppose you want to know the title? It's Straight Man by Richard Russo. The story of a middle aged English professor coming to terms with middle age, his parents, and the fact that he can't pee.

I haven't lived in academia for some time now, but I'm the daughter of a professor and I have two graduate degrees, so I have some inkling of the dysfunctional side of academic departments. Russo's imagined English department is more dysfunctional than any I've ever seen in real life, but he catches the essence of academia and raises it to new levels of craziness as the protagonist Hank Devereaux reluctantly leads the department through a job search for which position there is no funding, a general lack of budget for the coming year, rumors of a mass layoff threatening even those with tenure, and, of course, dealing mediocre and downright crummy students (and faculty).

While the English department carries on its usual unhappy and back-biting way, his wife is out of town, his daughter's life is falling apart and his long gone, philandering father is returning to Hank's mother. Through it all, Hank finds himself unable to pee and often yearns more for that than great deeds or marvelous events. He is a man of middle age, learning that he is what he is -- no more and no less.

Although I am not middle age yet, I have, of late, been struck by the need to be what I am -- to be content where I am and living the life I have. Which is not to say that one cannot strive to be the best at what one is, but I sometimes need to realize that if we were the ones to do great deeds we would have done them -- as Hank considers that if he had been meant to write more than one novel, he would have written it. This is what has been sifting through my mind, although with all the laugh lines. Sometimes the smallest of physical things are what we need and long for most. The great deeds that in our youth we imagined within our grasp were never there, but the life we are leading as we age, the path we wandered down in living is a good one and a valuable one even without the splendid palaces and golden crowns.

I don't know. Either I'm making too much of it, or there is probably more there that I'm missing, but I still say in spite of the, ahem, naughty bits, it's a lot more than those and worth the read -- even if just for the laughs.


I agree, it's a great book! I love Richard Russo's writing, I really enjoyed Empire Falls too.

Posted by: Bronwynt at October 13, 2008 07:16 AM

I liked your review. I laughed just reading it. As an MA in ENglish, I think I will look for that at the library. It sounds like something I can relate to on some level. I like your blog.

Posted by: Charity Starchenko at October 13, 2008 07:48 AM