Straight Man by Richard Russo


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Guy in Your MFA may be all the rage on Twitter these days but he first made an appearance in Straight Man, the 1997 novel by Richard Russo. The book is the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr.—Hank, for short—a professor in the English Department at the Railton Campus of West Central Pennsylvania University. In Hank’s workshop, his student Leo is unshakably confident despite his mediocre writing skills. Like Guy in Your MFA, he thinks that he and Hank are “after a fashion, team-teaching the course.”

From the author interviews Leo devours, he has learned that the worst thing that can happen to a talented young writer is to be given too much praise, so Leo is grateful to me for protecting him. I don’t know whether he’s grateful to the other students in the workshop, who have been even more determined than their instructor not to ruin him with too much praise. Or any praise.

This novel is like a masterclass in itself. Other peripheral characters, much like Leo, are given such concrete characteristics that it remains easy to keep track of all of them as the English Department, which Hank chairs, faces the threat of impending budget and faculty cuts. Right at the start of the book, we meet Teddy, one of Hank’s colleagues.

Teddy is an insanely cautious driver, unwilling to goose his little Civic into a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. “The cars are spaced just wrong. I can’t help it,” he explains, when he see me grinning at him. Teddy’s my age, forty-nine, and though his features are more boyish, he too is beginning to show signs of age. Never robust, his chest seems to have become more concave, which emphasizes his small paunch. His hands are delicate, almost feminine, hairless. His skinny legs appear lost in his trousers.

That’s all the Teddy we need. We can see him now every time he appears.

And it isn’t just the character descriptions that we can learn from. Russo actually fits real writing lessons into the book. The students in my creative writing class should expect to try some of them.

I’m returning them to the beginning, to a character exercise from their intro class. It’s called “I know you, Al. You’re (not) the kind of man who—” The exercise is designed to test the writer’s understanding of his characters by challenging him to complete the sentence in an interesting and revealing way.

Richard Russo
Richard Russo

Does Hank, or Russo, believe that creative writing can be taught? By the end of the book, we know Hank and we know he’s not the kind of man to believe that. He would believe, at best, that an MFA has the potential to make a good writer better but it can’t make a bad writer good. But he certainly is not against teaching creative writing nonetheless. Tenure, after all, is tenure, and there’s a reason creative writing as an academic field is becoming increasingly popular while also becoming a hot topic of debate.

But back to the book. The plot is not what carries things forward—the very fact that the inner workings of a small academic department are boring is the premise of the book. I suppose one could try and argue that a plot that involves a threat by an English professor to kill a duck a day until he gets a satisfying budget is plot enough. But it is Hank’s voice that propels us through this book and makes it impossible to put down even at the end of a chapter. His relationships are not life-changing ones. They are, in many ways, the same ones we all have. And so we cheer him on. Like any life, his is full and complicated and funny and sad and so we keep reading.

Hank wrote one book, Off The Road (such an obvious play on Kerouac’s title would be annoying in most people’s hands, but not Russo’s), when he was 29 years old that did well enough to land him a job at Railton and enable him to buy the two adjacent lots to his home so he wouldn’t have neighbors. Since then he’s written little other than notes in the margins of his students’ stories and small columns for the local paper. His ability to urinate becomes the metaphor for his life. He stands in the bathroom comparing his measly trickle to the powerful jet of the man using the urinal next to him.

To say this book is funny is an understatement. I first read this book nearly a decade ago and it made me laugh out loud. Ten years and one MFA later, I am surprised by how sad the book is at its core. I worry that ten years from now, I will find it sadder still. There lies this book’s beauty.

Diksha Basu is a writer and actor who divides her time between NYC and Bombay. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. You can find her on twitter @dikshabasu.

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