Pillorying Pretentious Professors A Zany but Humane Satire of a Tenured College Faculty

Article excerpt

Straight Man

By Richard Russo

Random House 391 pp., $25 University life has served as an irresistible subject for some of the funniest satire in modern literature. After teaching briefly at Sarah Lawrence College, Mary McCarthy set the standard high with "The Groves of Academe" (1952), her acerbic satire of a liberal college for women. Just two years ago Jane Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State, lambasted a Midwestern university in "Moo: A Novel," (Random House) a bestseller that sprawled across dozens of strange and hilarious characters. The narrator of the latest addition to this genre, "Straight Man" by Richard Russo, observes wryly that "virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. Sad little vessels all. Scruffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal - to evidence a superior sensibility." Fortunately, Russo's fully written novel is neither sad nor overwrought for he evinces plenty of elegance and flawless timing. He demonstrates that it's possible to laugh at, and with, someone simultaneously. The novel opens at the peak of a budget crisis at West Central Pennsylvania University that threatens to fall with particular severity on the English department. Forced into the center of this debate is the reluctant interim chair, William Henry Devereaux Jr., who proudly admits that his "lack of administrative skill is legend." In a moment of ill-conceived fury he preempts the televised dedication of a new Technical Careers Center by threatening to kill one of the campus geese every day until a budget arrives on his desk. With outrageous but straight-faced retorts that endear him to us but infuriate his colleagues, Devereaux struggles to endure and even enjoy the contentious characters who despise their jobs at this third-rate university, but like the campus geese are too lazy to fly away. The author, who taught at Colby College, has assembled the usual cast of temperamental faculty and incompetent administrators that devotees of comic university novels will recognize. There's an earnest young professor so devoted to gender-neutral language that Hank refers to him as "Orshe"; a modern theorist who rejects literature entirely and teaches only from videotapes of television sitcoms; a poet who communicates almost entirely by filing grievances against her colleagues. …