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Just Joking

STRAIGHT MAN. By Richard Russo . Random House: 396 pp., $25

September 21, 1997|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review

Just shy of his 50th birthday, William Henry Devereaux Jr., the wise-cracking interim head of the English department at West Central Pennsylvania University, is about to realize that he isn't cut out for academic life. It's only taken 20 years, but what fun would an epiphany like this be if it didn't slam like a ton of bricks through the years he's lost trying to deny it?

It's April, the cruelest month, and this particular week isn't going to get any easier. On the home front, Devereaux's wife is about to head off to Philly to interview for a new job, leaving him with their white German shepherd and a kidney stone that feels like the Rock of Gibraltar. His mother, who lives across town, is about to welcome home his philandering father after a 40-year absence, and his youngest daughter, her husband currently unemployed, is about to cut out on the marriage.

Add to that a colleague who took offense at one of his many indelicate quips and gaffed his nose with the spiral end of a loose-leaf notebook and a university that's trying to cut staff and costs by 20% and you have the makings of one beautiful midlife crisis. We all should be so lucky, for never has such misfortune seemed so tolerable than in Richard Russo's "Straight Man," a thoroughly irreverent, masterful satire of American life, circa 1997.

Russo, who made his mark capturing the foibles and manners of working-class stiffs in his first three novels, "Mohawk," "The Risk Pool" and "Nobody's Fool," has retained his dead-pan edge. He's a Raymond Carver without the grunge, a funny Richard Ford and, on the not-so venerable campus of WCPU, an American Kingsley Amis: Devereaux's nom de plume for the column he writes for the local rag, Lucky Hank, is surely a tip of the hat to the author of "Lucky Jim."

Hank, like Sully, the Paul Newman character in the film version of "Nobody's Fool," is not all too happy with his life, but that doesn't keep him from enjoying himself. In the "face of life's seriousness," he tells us, "my spirits are far too easily restored," and as department head, he proudly demonstrates what havoc can be wrought by someone "sufficiently insensitive to ridicule, personal invective, and threat."

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the million-dollar college of technical careers, he dons fake glasses and nose, grabs a goose by the neck, jumps in front of the television cameras and threatens to kill a bird a day as long as his department doesn't get its budget.

Hank's jokes are hardly subtle. Like slapstick, they're a simple kick in the seat of the pants in a world that he reduces to shades of black and white. Content to skip across the surface of life, attacking difficulty and discomfort to riposte and prank, Hank's not altogether easy with complicating factors. His spiritual guide is none other than William of Occam, a 14th century academic who valiantly fought the pope's tangled explanations of faith by arguing for simplicity in all things.

But life increasingly confounds Hank, and some things can't be joked away. At WCPU, for instance, education has become a commodity. Things are changing, he is warned by the campus executive officer, Dickie Pope, who tries to explain why he has to ax some faculty. "Forces of nature, Hank, pure and simple. . . . We're fresh out of baby boomers. The colleges that survive the decade are going to be lean and mean."

It's bad news for the university and bad news for neighboring Railton, a town not quite recovered from the recession and now being hammered by shifting demographics and economics, 1997-style. Russo's portrait of this dying, once thriving Conrail hub, home to workers who have gone from "unemployment to subsistence checks," is straight out of Dickens (". . . though the railroad is all but dead," he writes, "what remains of the business district is so sooty and gray that a month of rains couldn't cleanse it. . . ."). The leather tannery that figured so prominently in Russo's "Mohawk" has been replaced by the university, and what was unemployment is now downsizing, orchestrated by corporations or, in the case of WCPU, state bean counters, intent on the bottom line.

On this and other matters, Hank's colleagues, like their students, are divided between "the vocal clueless and the quietly pensive." They live with wants and cravings they can't begin to satisfy or afford. No mystery then that Russo keeps returning to the life of William Cherry, a Conrail employee who retired with pension and full benefits and recently lay down in front of a passing train. A sure sign of Russo's skill is how difficult it is to convey the humor of this essentially dark novel.

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