Straight Man

  • Author:  Richard Russo
  • Published:  1997
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  391
  • First Line:  “Truth be told, I’m not an easy man.”
  • Last Lines:  see below
  • First Read:  Summer 2001

The campus novel has a long and strong tradition.  Its origins date back to the 30’s although the comedic campus novel really dates to 1954 with the publication of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.  While there have been a number of really good serious novels that can be considered campus novels (both Human Stain and Disgrace are among my Top 100 and Possession could definitely be considered one), I prefer the ones that find the humor at the core of the university experience, books like Wonder Boys or Dear Committee Members or even White Noise.

Campus novels speak to me, at least partially because I’ve spent the majority of my life on college campuses.  I was a faculty brat, spending my youth on the campuses of SUNY Albany and Chapman before going to four different schools and earning two different degrees over the course of over a decade.  Plus, I’ve spent over half the time since I finished my Masters working on the campus of one university or another.

That’s not to say they’re all winners.  The Blue Angel is a campus novel and I viciously hated it while I had such a strong dislike to The Secret History that I’ve never bothered to read The Goldfinch in spite of its Pulitzer.  But this book, from the first minute I picked it up, I have continually reached for again and again and there are very good reasons why.

“Our search for a new chairperson had gone pretty much as expected.  In September we were given permission to search.  In October we were reminded that the position had not yet been funded.  In December we were grudgingly permitted to come up with a short list and interview at the convention.  In January we were denied permission to bring anyone to campus.  In February we were reminded of the hiring freeze and that we had no guarantee that an exception would be made for us, even to hire a new chair.  By March all but six of the remaining applicants had either accepted other positions or decided they were better off staying where they were than throwing in with people who were running a search as screwed up as this one.  In April we were advised by the dean to narrow our list to three and rank the candidates.  There was no need to narrow the list.  By then only three remained out of the original two hundred.”

I currently work at a university again but I’m not going to say where.  The reason is that my own department is headed by an interim vice dean because the dean search the university went through found a great candidate only to have the candidate turn it down when the university wouldn’t give the candidate’s spouse the exactly type of class to teach they wanted.  When I worked at Tufts we actually had multiple failed searches, one of which was actually deliberate so we could then hire our internal candidate we really wanted (who wasn’t technically qualified but could do the work, so we had to have an official search first).  That’s just what universities have to go through.  It looks my boss might be the interim dean, a position they didn’t want, for a whole extra year.

“One of the nice things about our marriage, at least to my way of thinking, is that my wife and I no longer need to argue everything through.  We each know what the other will say, and so the saying becomes an unnecessary formality.  No doubt some marriage counselor would explain to us that our problem is a failure to communicate, but to my way of thinking we’ve worked long and hard to achieve this silence, Lily’s and mine, so fraught with understanding.”

That line, of course, isn’t about a university, but Russo’s book also deals with the character (and I will say a lot more about him below).  This is his summation of his marriage.  In this case, Russo has hit the nail on the head again because Veronica would say this sums up our marriage and would also say that it’s a good thing, much like Hank Deveroux, the hilarious narrator of the book says.

“Have I brought this on myself, I wonder, that people who know me refuse to take me seriously, while to virtual strangers my ironic sallies are received with staunch, serious outrage?”

Veronica wasn’t so sure it was a good thing that so many of Hank’s traits are ones that are also identifiable in me.  This is a definite one.

“In many ways Finny is the most rational member of our ragtag band, at least if you grant him the one or two assumptions he proceeds from.  By requesting early morning and late afternoon classes, by enforcing a strict attendance policy, and by devoting the first three weeks of class to differentiating between restrictive and nonrestrictive noun clauses, Finny halves his teaching load each terms..  Students start dropping out by the second week of classes, and by the end of the term he has a seminar of seven or eight where once there were the regulation twenty-three.  This, he maintains when challenged, is the result of genuine university standards, evenly applied.”

I will just point out here that these lines are not only brutally funny but completely accurate.  When I was a first semester Freshman at Brandeis, I had a teacher who had literally written the book on government.  It was not only the book I used as a Freshman, but also one I had used the year before in high school.  He continually moved the class earlier and earlier to get fewer students to take it and when I took it was an eight o’clock class.  I saw him the first day of class when he introduced the TA’s.  I never saw him again.  I much preferred, after I transferred to Pacific, that we didn’t deal with the bullshit of teaching assistants.  Professors at Pacific were there to teach.

“The food on campus is unworthy of a dean.  Therefore, we will dine at a bowling alley.”

Hey, that’s the kind of thing you get in small towns.  In Forest Grove, a town of just 12,000 in which 1/12 of that are Pacific students, I found it impossible for four years to go to local grocery store without running into someone I knew.

“His research on these same shows he publishes, for environmental reasons, in electronic magazines, thereby sparing himself the criticism that his essays are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

Again, Pacific, thankfully didn’t have the publish or perish.

“Social Sciences, the newest building on campus, was built in the midseventies, when there was money for both buildings and faculty.  According to myth, the structure was designed to prevent student takeovers, and this may be true.  A series of pods, it’s all zigzagging corridors and abrupt mezzanines that make it impossible to walk from one end of the building to another.  At one point, if you’re on the first floor, either you have to go up two floors, over and down again or you have to go outside the building and then in again in order to arrive at an office you can see from where you’re standing.”

I am writing this at the same time that Horton Plaza, the mall located in the heart of downtown San Diego, is being torn down.  That’s a perfect description of Horton Plaza.  Just look at this description of the mall from Wikipedia: “The building’s design featured mismatched levels, long one-way ramps, sudden drop-offs, dramatic parapets, shadowy colonnades, cul-de-sacs, and brightly painted facades constructed around a central courtyard.”

“‘They’re around back,’ she calls down when Julie and I get out.  ‘They’re planning their strategy.’  ‘Good for them,’ I say, confident that no strategy that isn’t grounded in chaos theory is likely to work against a man like me.”

Oh, that is so me it isn’t even funny.  Russo didn’t just create a brilliantly hilarious character who grew up on college campuses and knows what it’s like to try and survive one.  He wrote about me.

“‘You think we defend incompetence, promote mediocrity.’  ‘I wish you would promote mediocrity,’ I assure him.  ‘Mediocrity is a reasonable goal for our institution.'”

I read this book for the first time when I worked at Powells.  This was a perfect description of the problems with my department thanks to the union and its need to defend every employee, no matter how relentlessly incompetent.  My entire department was upended and ruined when an incompetent moron who should have been fired, in the meeting where he was getting fired, but was being defended by the union, declared that everyone was looking at the internet.

“They’re probably here to complain to Jacob about Finny’s dullness.  This errand would be a waste of their time, even if people like me weren’t cutting in line ahead of them.  Jacob Rose himself was no fireball in the classroom, and he’s been hearing the same complaints about Finny for a decade.  There are lots of dull teachers.  You can’t make them all deans.”

I feel at this point that I should say that I never saw my father actually teach so I can’t make any claims as to whether being a dean was a better fit for him, though he was much happier once he was a dean and I think it was a better fit.  Even Pacific, a school where they hired teachers who wanted to teach had its fair share of complete duds.

So, I haven’t really given you the plot, but who cares?  It’s a university novel about a professor at the end of his tether, just trying to get his budget for the next school year, help up by the endless red tape.

But then we get to that absolute brilliant ending.  At a party to celebrate the successful heart surgery of a professor, a large group of professors end up in a small room where the door opens inwards and find that they can not get out and panic starts to rise.  And then we end with this amazing, beautiful, incredibly funny ending:

“Clearly the only solution would be for all of us to take a step backward so that the door could be pulled open.  By this point a group of plumbers, a group of bricklayers, a group of hookers, a group of chimpanzees would have figured this out.  But the room contained, unfortunately, a group of academics, and we couldn’t quite believe what had happened to us.”

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