So far, I have enjoyed Empire Falls the most of Richard Russo’s novels, and Straight Man is at least also set in the rust belt, which he depicts so well. However, rather than being a depiction of small-town life, it is a rich spoof of academia. My husband, formerly the spouse of an academic, tells a joke, probably an old one, that the reason politics in academia is so vicious is that the stakes are so low. That these battles are being fought not on the campus of a great university but of an obscure college in a small Pennsylvania industrial town makes it more ironic.
William Henry Devereux, Jr., (Hank) sees himself as a bit of a rebel, although his rebelliousness mostly confines itself to snarky comments in faculty meetings and satiric opinion pieces on academic life in the local paper. He was once the author of a decently reviewed novel, but now he finds himself the interim head of the English department at a small Pennsylvania college.
Hank has been ignoring rumors that the college is to undergo stringent cuts on the grounds that the same rumors make the rounds every April. The faculty members in his department are constantly embattled, most recently over the job search for a new department head. Hank is better at enraging them than smoothing things over, and at the beginning of the novel suffers a wound to his nose when a professor hits him with her spiral notebook.
Maybe Hank wouldn’t have gotten himself into quite so much trouble, but his wife Lily is out of town on a job interview, and he is preoccupied by a possible kidney stone when he begins taking the rumors seriously. One of the reasons he has discounted them is that the college is breaking ground on an expensive new technology center and he can hardly believe they could claim financial problems requiring layoffs at the same time.
Such is the case, he finds, and with his department members all worried about their jobs, he chooses the groundbreaking ceremony to stage a protest, claiming he will kill a duck (which is in reality a goose) from the campus pond for every day he doesn’t get his budget. Soon he finds himself a minor media celebrity and a suspect of campus security when someone actually does kill a goose. In the meantime, his daughter’s marriage is imploding, he keeps imagining his wife is having an affair with the dean, his scholar father who years before deserted him and his mother for a graduate student is returning, and an attractive daughter of a colleague might be trying to seduce him. The events of this week force him to examine his relationship to his own life.
I found this novel both a bit over the top and amusing, as well as true. If I have a criticism, it is to wonder about some modern male authors’ fascination with bodily functions, and why they seem to think they’re funny. But I guess I can’t constrain this complaint to just novelists, because I’ve been staying away from comic movies for years for the same reason.