Lucky Hank and the academic warfare
Straight Man by Richard Russo 1997 French title: Un rôle qui me convient.
We’re in Railton, Pennsylvia, in the late 1990s. William Henry Devereaux Jr –Hank— is fifty, has been married to Lily for years and has two grown-ups daughters. He teaches English and manages a creative writing workshop at the local university. Lily teaches in a high school and devotes her career to difficult students. They live in Allegheny Hills, on the best side of town, surrounded by other members of the faculty. Railton is a small town; Hank points out that it’s not possible to go to a restaurant without stumbling upon a colleague from university. They live a quiet and comfortable life.
The whole novel covers a pivoting week in Hank’s life. He rethinks his choices in life, his job is threatened by cost cutting and his colleagues want another chairman, his womanising father is back in his life after a long absence, his daughter’s marriage is sinking and his wife is away to apply to a new job. It seems a lot for one man but Russo makes it entirely plausible. A week born under the sign of Murphy’s law, that’s all. However, the main plot concentrates on the current drama on campus.
At the present, Hank is the reluctant interim chairman of the English department which is as peaceful as the Middle East. Each faction camps on their position, thoroughly hating each other and having no other choice than to bear each other’s presence. Their carry their shared history like a burden instead of building something on it. The book starts with Hank having his nose injured by an angry colleague during a meeting organised to pick up the future chairman. Everything goes downhill from there as the rumour says there is no budget to hire a chairman and that instead, the dean has required a list of lay-offs.
April is the month of heightened paranoia for academics, not that their normal paranoia is insufficient to ruin a perfectly fine day in any season. But April is always the worst. Whatever dirt will be done to us is always planned in April, then executed over the summer, when we are dispersed. September is always too late to remedy the reduced merit raises, the slashed travel fund, the doubled price of the parking sticker that allows us to park in the Modern Languages lot. Rumors about severe budget cuts that will affect faculty have been rampant every April for the past five years, although this year’s have been particularly persistent and virulent. Still, the fact is that every year the legislature has threatened deep cuts in higher education. And every year a high-powered education task force is sent to the capitol to lobby the legislature for increased spending.
Now, they all want to know if Hank drew a list or not and who’s on the would-be list. Hank spends his time dodging questions from all sides, trying to figure out what is really happening. And at the same time, he’s indifferent to his fate as he’s not interested in power and the glamour of a chairman position doesn’t tempt him.
He doesn’t fit in the academic mould, so he’s ill-equipped to face the duties of a chairman. He’s saved by his wicked sense of humour and his propensity to look at events with the lenses of humour. It’s a defence mechanism and Hank is more affected by his surroundings and people’s life circumstances than he let show.
Straight Man was one of my Humbook gifts from Guy. It’s my third Russo; I’ve read and loved Empire Falls and Mohawk. I was happy to meet with Russo again and enjoyed his talented walk on the dangerous line of tragi-comedy. Hank’s adventures are funny and Russo is not lacking in the imagination department. (Hank isn’t either). But there’s also serious thinking about ageing and assessing your choices in life. Hank is fifty, he’s suffering from the male version of PMS – Prostate Malfunction Syndrom— which never lets him forget he’s ageing. As his quiet life is attacked on all sides, he’s forced to think. If these issues had happened one after the other, he would have been able to shrug them off, one at a time. But now, he can’t avoid them all and he’s obliged to face them just as his failing prostate obliges him to acknowledge his age.
As in the other two Russos I’ve read, Railton is a declining city with an industrial background and it falls apart. The city’s economy is in bad shape; Hank’s son-in-law is currently unemployed despite his degree. The university is underfunded; there aren’t many cultural events. Railton is like a cul-de-sac. A metaphor for Hank’s life?
In Straight Man, Richard Russo describes an academic world as toxic and ridiculous as the one pictured by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim. Hank’s nickname is Lucky Hank and I think it’s not a coincidence. I’ve read Lucky Jim recently and the story and characters are still fresh in my mind. Sure, the academic world in England in the 1950s is more formal than the one in America in the 1990s. But the two microcosms look alike. The English teachers in Railton have all something wrong with them, from minor ego problems to pathological drinking. I haven’t been to university and I’ve never had contact with university teachers, but seriously, when you read novels, you wonder if it’s really a good idea to leave young and impressionable minds in their hands. Would I like my children to be tutored by the teachers described by Richard Russo or Kingsley Amis? Like in the other “university” books I’ve read, the atmosphere strikes me as full of intrigues and the path leading to promotion is covered with banana skins. But it’s a caricature, isn’t it?
Lucky Hank could be an older Lucky Jim. They have the same fantasy, the same unwillingness to take themselves seriously and the same tendency to sabotage themselves. They also suffer from a bad self-image. However, both are lucky in love as Hank is in a good relationship with Lily. They try to navigate through the system and both refuse to stoop to anything for advancement. They don’t think that their work is important. They’re both anarchists in disguise and can have hilarious behaviours in stressful moments. In Lucky Jim, the protagonist makes cigarette burns in his bed sheets when he stays at his boss’s house. Follows a hilarious attempt at hiding the mischief. In Straight Man, Hank pees in his pants, hides in the ceiling to conceal his wet clothes and to eavesdrop on a key meeting. You need serious mind juggling capacities to get out of situations like this undetected. They find ways, not always straight, not always efficient but they make it.
I chose to read Straight Man in French, which means I don’t have a lot of quotes to share unless they are in translation. You’ll have to trust me and the little quote above when I say that Russo’s prose is witty, compassionate and utterly human. I didn’t detail the excellent side characters you’ll encounter in Railton or Hank’s manifesto with a goose in front of the media. You’ll have to read it yourself to hear about that. If you decide to read it, I hope you’ll have a great time in company of this novel. Even if Hank’s behaviour is puzzling at times, he’s really a straight man.
Thanks Guy for picking this Russoas my Humbook gift. I loved it. Now I’m reading Stu’s Humbook gift, Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano.