Straight Man by Richard Russo

Amid all the quips and clever comebacks that fly through the halls of the dysfunctional English department at West Central Pennsylvania University in this novel, you find the reason for both all the antagonistic levity and the book’s title. William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the story’s narrator, states clearly: In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man. Hank Devereaux, temporary department chair and determined wild card, revels in creating harmless chaos in his little corner of academia, and so rarely gets to play that coveted “straight man” role. He’s a wisecracker who intentionally tries to hold the bad stuff in life at bay. He’s a convincing, friendly point-of-view man, however, and his voice succeeds at drawing us into this hilarious, poignant novel of academe.

Continuing funding slashes have got rumours of staff cutbacks running rampant, and Hank’s colleagues suspect him of having prepared a “list” that recommends who should get the boot, regardless of tenure. Hank hasn’t, but it’s not in his character to tell them if he has or not, and the English department threatens mutiny, calling a vote for a new chair.

That each and every member of the department should fear firing is not surprising, for paranoia is part of the academic game, and every person on staff has good reason for suspecting he (or she) won’t make the grade. There’s white linen-suited Finny, who outed himself just long enough to get divorced before reverting to claims of heterosexuality that no one believes, and who has a Ph.D. from American Sonora University, an institution that exists, so far as we’ve been able to determine, only on letterhead and in the form of a post office box in Del Rio, Texas, the onetime home, if I’m not mistaken, of Wolfman Jack.

There’s non-tenured Campbell “Orshee” Wheemer, the pony-tailed protofeminist who forbids books and writing in his classes (he uses taped TV sitcoms and makes his students turn in video cassettes for semester projects), who appends every use of the masculine pronoun in department meetings with “or she.” There’s the aging prima-donna poet Gracie DuBois, whom every man in the college lusted over back when she was hired twenty years ago, now gone to fat; she’s got a harassment suit in the works against Hank concerning his eternal wisecracking. There’s meek Teddy Barnes, Hank’s erstwhile best friend, who’s been a little bit in love with Hank’s wife for years; there’s June, Teddy’s wife, who is rumored to be having an affair with Orshee. There’s Paul Rourke, Hank’s nemesis and neighbor, who’s sworn never to laugh at anything Hank says. And then there is Hank, who hasn’t published a book since his own hiring almost half his lifetime ago.

While he wrestles with this motley crew over department matters, Hank’s got much more in life that demands his attention. His daughter, who has failed to inherit Hank or his wife Lily’s love of language and writing, is in deep debt moneywise over her house (a copy to the room of her parents’) and on the outs with her unemployed husband. Hank himself is unsure whether or not he’d care if he got canned. Lily is checking out distant job opportunities, and Hank vaguely suspects that she’s having an affair with his dean.

His adopted dog has developed enough self-assurance to “groin” everyone who visits. He worries that he’s developing a stone — as runs in the men in his family — due to his having one hell of a time trying to pee. The biggest thing is perhaps his mother’s informing him that the man he’s tried hard not to think much about for most of his life, the father who deserted Hank and his mother for a succession of trophy graduate students, is going to be making a reappearance, perhaps for good, in their lives.

This novel of campus, family, midlife crisis and death threats against ducks bursts with humor and tenderness. Richard Russo has created characters who come quickly to colourful life. You won’t want the story to end because you want to keep on seeing Hank Devereaux’s world through his incomparable eyes. You will, however, be happy that you spent some time along with him for the ride.

Writing about regular people with regular lives is Russo’s forte. His ability to turn the mundane or ordinary into nuanced stories is incredible. He also writes with amazing humour and wit. I laughed out loud reading this novel and give it 5 stars.

Outrage Fatigue? Liberals are Suffering!

In what has been a tumultuous couple of weeks, the past few days had left me with a feeling I couldn’t quite put a finger on. Until I heard about the term Outrage Fatigue. That’s it, I thought. That is exactly what I am feeling. I am not tired of being upset about all the crap that goes on, rather I am exhausted by the seemingly never-ending flow of bad news, bad people, bad countries and bad situations. Liberals are angry, conservatives are angry, heck, everybody seems to be spending a lot of time ticked off with the result being not a lot of action is taking place and even less getting done. It isn’t complacency; people do still care but the element of being shocked or surprised seems to have diminished to the point of the outrageous becoming the usual. As Professor John Seery puts it, “brooding despair has seemed to me to be the more appropriate emotional response than prickly indignation. One throws up one’s hands, and sighs.” Exactly right!

Seery is an intersting bloke. As well as being a contributor to the Huffington Post, he is a Professor of Politics at Pomona College. He holds his B.A. (Amherst), M.A. and PhD (both from Berkeley). I love that his areas of expertise include: civil disobedience, democratic theory, feminist politics, hell and comedy. Seriously! Check out his profile. In writing about outrage fatigue in a 2007 column (in relation to the Bush/Cheney era), he states: “Woe to us now. Is it just I, or have we indeed been electing into federal office, in the last decade or so, an unusually high number of goons, dimwits, thugs, flim-flam men, con artists, panderers, philanderers, perverts, prevaricators, prostitutes, bozos, B-actors, crazies, wackos, racists, scoundrels, criminals, and outright traitors? The Duke Cunninghams, Tom DeLays, and Larry Craigs don’t seem to be simply the isolated exceptions and bad apples–they’re just the ones who got caught. How is it that Dick Cheney can out a C.I.A. agent and not be run out of town as a traitor to this country? How is it that nutso Mike Huckabee can refer to staying indefinitely in Iraq as a matter of “honor?” How is it that a delusional frat boy with a fake Texas accent can dictate the terms of war for five years running? Why, in the Lord’s name, won’t the too-clever-by-half Democrats stand up to the hideous and senseless war mongering? Has the entire system of governance become corrupted beyond repair? I find myself hoping that a professional comedian gets elected in Minnesota in order to provide some modicum of truth-telling and honest leadership in the highest public offices in the land. The Founders, however, probably wouldn’t find that situation very funny.”

Ha!!! Seery has many more areas of interest and would have made a very cool professor back when I was doing my electives at University!

In an attempt to refresh my sensitivity I look to the one source that never fails to help ~ The Onion. Again, I am amazed by their breadth of reporting and share with you the following archived item, from July 7, 2004 (this has clearly been a problem for many in the United States for a long time! Thanks George W.!). Oh, did I say that out loud? What?

“WASHINGTON, DC—According to a study released Monday by the Hammond Political Research Group, many of the nation’s liberals are suffering from a vastly diminished sense of outrage. “With so many right-wing shams to choose from, it’s simply too daunting for the average, left-leaning citizen to maintain a sense of anger,” said Rachel Neas, the study’s director. “By our estimation, roughly 70 percent of liberals are experiencing some degree of lethargy resulting from a glut of civil-liberties abuses, education funding cuts, and exorbitant military expenditures.”

San Francisco's Arthur Flauman is one liberal who has chosen to take a hiatus from his seething rage over Bush Administration policies.

San Francisco’s Arthur Flauman is one liberal who has chosen to take a hiatus from his seething rage over Bush Administration policies. “Every day, my friends send me e-mails exposing Bush’s corrupt environmental policies,” said Flauman, a member of both the Green Party and the Sierra Club. “I used to spend close to an hour following all the links, and I’d be shocked and outraged by the irreversible damage being done to our land. At some point, though, I got annoyed with the demanding tone of the e-mails. The Clear Skies Initiative is bogus, but I’m not going to forward a six-page e-mail to all my friends—especially one written by a man who signs his name ‘Leaf.’ Now, if a message’s subject line contains the word ‘Bush,’ it goes straight into the trash.”

Neas found that many survey participants who attended protests against the war in Iraq in 2003 could barely summon the energy to read newspaper articles about the subject in 2004.Portland, OR resident Suzanne Marshal compared herself to an addict, needing increasingly large doses of perceived injustices to achieve a state of anger. “Even though I know how seriously messed-up the situation is in Iraq, I’ve became inured to all but the most extreme levels of wrongdoing,” Marshal said. “For months, no amount of civilian bombing could get me mad. Then those amazing photos of the tortured Iraqi prisoners hit the streets, and I got that old rush of overwhelming disgust with my government. Then more photos came out, and more officials were implicated, and now—I don’t know. It’s like a switch in my head turned off again.”

Neas said that the danger of fatigue was greater among liberals who regularly seek cause for outrage. “For a while, I wanted more fuel for the fire, to really get my blood boiling,” said Madison, WI resident Dorothy Levine, a reproductive-rights activist and former Howard Dean campaign volunteer. “I read the policy papers on the Brookings web site. I subscribed to The Progressive. I clipped cartoons by Tom Tomorrow and Ted Rall. I listened to NPR all day. But then, it was like, while I was reading Molly Ivins’ Bushwhacked, eight more must-read anti-Bush books came out. It was overwhelming. By the time they released Fahrenheit 9/11, I was too exhausted to drag myself to the theater.” “It used to be that I would turn on Pacifica Radio and be incensed at the top of every hour,” Levine added. “Now, I could find out that Bush plans to execute every 10th citizen and I’d barely blink an eye, much less raise a finger.”

Of the liberals afflicted with fatigue, many said they are still haunted by the spectres of their former outrage. “I can’t even look at the back of my Volvo anymore,” said one Syracuse, NY liberal who wished to remain anonymous. “My ‘Lick Bush’ and ‘Four More Wars’ bumper stickers just remind me of the angry feelings I can’t sustain. I still have a sign hanging up in my cubicle at work, but if someone starts to talk about Cheney, I can’t take it. I’m like, ‘Yes, we all hate Cheney. He’s an evil puppet-master. Yes, Bush is dumb. This is obvious. How many times can we say it? Now, excuse me, will you let me through so I can microwave my burrito?'”

Phew. While I recognize the content of The Onion article is dated and completely American-centric, along with being from The Onion, but it does help make my point about where people’s minds and emotions are at theses days. The humour, for me, is a perfect antidote to a malaise that is becoming more wide-spread with each passing day.