Picks and Pans Review: Straight Man
So here's the deal," shouts the hero of Richard Russo's wicked campus satire. "Starting Monday I kill a duck a day until I get a budget." He's live on local television news, wearing a fake Groucho nose and eyebrows and clutching a frightened goose by the neck. What ails William Henry Devereaux Jr.? He's the interim chairman of a ludicrously combative English department at a cash-strapped, third-rate state university in the Pennsylvania boondocks—and that's just for starters.
With his wife out of town, his libido acting up, his health iffy, his daughter in the dumps and his job in jeopardy, Devereaux can't for the life of him stop wisecracking. A softhearted cynic, he deals as disastrously with the byzantine world of faculty politics—the goose-hostage ploy is but one amusing example—as he does with domestic challenges.
Poking fun at petty campus quarrels is a tired game, and to perk things up the author puts Devereaux through too many slapstick-flavored torments. The result is funny but frantic and, finally, hollow. A short sabbatical leave, and Russo—author of Nobody's Fool and two other fine novels—should be back in top form. (Random House, $25)