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.