STRAIGHT MAN. By Richard Russo . Random House: 396 pp., $25

Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review

Just shy of his 50th birthday, William Henry Devereaux Jr., the wise-cracking interim head of the English department at West Central Pennsylvania University, is about to realize that he isn't cut out for academic life. It's only taken 20 years, but what fun would an epiphany like this be if it didn't slam like a ton of bricks through the years he's lost trying to deny it?

It's April, the cruelest month, and this particular week isn't going to get any easier. On the home front, Devereaux's wife is about to head off to Philly to interview for a new job, leaving him with their white German shepherd and a kidney stone that feels like the Rock of Gibraltar. His mother, who lives across town, is about to welcome home his philandering father after a 40-year absence, and his youngest daughter, her husband currently unemployed, is about to cut out on the marriage.

Add to that a colleague who took offense at one of his many indelicate quips and gaffed his nose with the spiral end of a loose-leaf notebook and a university that's trying to cut staff and costs by 20% and you have the makings of one beautiful midlife crisis. We all should be so lucky, for never has such misfortune seemed so tolerable than in Richard Russo's "Straight Man," a thoroughly irreverent, masterful satire of American life, circa 1997.

Russo, who made his mark capturing the foibles and manners of working-class stiffs in his first three novels, "Mohawk," "The Risk Pool" and "Nobody's Fool," has retained his dead-pan edge. He's a Raymond Carver without the grunge, a funny Richard Ford and, on the not-so venerable campus of WCPU, an American Kingsley Amis: Devereaux's nom de plume for the column he writes for the local rag, Lucky Hank, is surely a tip of the hat to the author of "Lucky Jim."

Hank, like Sully, the Paul Newman character in the film version of "Nobody's Fool," is not all too happy with his life, but that doesn't keep him from enjoying himself. In the "face of life's seriousness," he tells us, "my spirits are far too easily restored," and as department head, he proudly demonstrates what havoc can be wrought by someone "sufficiently insensitive to ridicule, personal invective, and threat."

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the million-dollar college of technical careers, he dons fake glasses and nose, grabs a goose by the neck, jumps in front of the television cameras and threatens to kill a bird a day as long as his department doesn't get its budget.

Hank's jokes are hardly subtle. Like slapstick, they're a simple kick in the seat of the pants in a world that he reduces to shades of black and white. Content to skip across the surface of life, attacking difficulty and discomfort to riposte and prank, Hank's not altogether easy with complicating factors. His spiritual guide is none other than William of Occam, a 14th century academic who valiantly fought the pope's tangled explanations of faith by arguing for simplicity in all things.

But life increasingly confounds Hank, and some things can't be joked away. At WCPU, for instance, education has become a commodity. Things are changing, he is warned by the campus executive officer, Dickie Pope, who tries to explain why he has to ax some faculty. "Forces of nature, Hank, pure and simple. . . . We're fresh out of baby boomers. The colleges that survive the decade are going to be lean and mean."

It's bad news for the university and bad news for neighboring Railton, a town not quite recovered from the recession and now being hammered by shifting demographics and economics, 1997-style. Russo's portrait of this dying, once thriving Conrail hub, home to workers who have gone from "unemployment to subsistence checks," is straight out of Dickens (". . . though the railroad is all but dead," he writes, "what remains of the business district is so sooty and gray that a month of rains couldn't cleanse it. . . ."). The leather tannery that figured so prominently in Russo's "Mohawk" has been replaced by the university, and what was unemployment is now downsizing, orchestrated by corporations or, in the case of WCPU, state bean counters, intent on the bottom line.

On this and other matters, Hank's colleagues, like their students, are divided between "the vocal clueless and the quietly pensive." They live with wants and cravings they can't begin to satisfy or afford. No mystery then that Russo keeps returning to the life of William Cherry, a Conrail employee who retired with pension and full benefits and recently lay down in front of a passing train. A sure sign of Russo's skill is how difficult it is to convey the humor of this essentially dark novel.

As he sets his story in motion, he lavishly captures the idiosyncracies of life in this pressure cooker. It's an environment where strange people--like fellow faculty members Campbell Wheemer, who publishes in electronic magazines, "sparing himself the criticism that his work is not worth the paper it's printed on," or Phineas Combe, whose PhD is from an institution that exists only "in the form of a post office box in Del Rio, Texas," onetime home of Wolfman Jack--act stranger. Catch Hank and his friends down at the local watering hole and you'll see the petty viciousness they call collegiality. Find them at the Evergreen getting a prime rib dinner on two-for-one night and chances are they're marinated in sour mash and putting a pleasant face on the latest infidelities or back-stabbing they've lately endured. It's all a story of the numbing security insecure people desperately seek, made all the more painful because, as Hank comes to realize, their pain is just a shadow of his own.

"Other people make their peace with who they are, what they've become," he thinks at the moment that he's trapped, eavesdropping from the crawl space in the ceiling directly above the conference room where his colleagues, fed up with his antics, are about to vote on his status as interim head. "Why can't I? Why live the life of a contortionist, scrunched in among the rafters? So that I can maintain the costly illusion that I'm not what my father is."

Wounded--though he would never admit it--when his father abandoned him 40 years ago, stunted by the fame his father has achieved (a professor at Columbia, Devereaux Sr. is known in some circles as the Father of American Literary Theory) and still rebelling, Hank sees the world filled with two kinds of people: those who want to be like their parents and those who work hard at not becoming like their parents. He eventually learns that neither succeeds, and when Hank and his dad reach their rapprochement at the end of the novel during a walk to Railton's abandoned midway, Russo demonstrates his skill separating real emotion from easy sentiment.

"You may find this strange," his father, a constricted old man, confesses in as much an apology to Hank as it is his own critical reappraisal, "but I've recently started rereading Dickens. . . . Much of the work is appalling, of course. Simply appalling. . . . But there is something there, isn't there? Some power . . . something"--he searches for the right word here--"transcendent, really."

Which is really of course the best word to describe the academic high jinx in "Straight Man." After seven days of suffering the fools of his life (albeit gladly), enduring the mortification of the flesh (that damn kidney stone) and realizing the shortcomings of his spiritual guide ("For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it's always wrong," as Russo quotes H.L. Mencken at the start of the epilogue), Hank comes to the root of his problem. "Fearing that I was forever tenured . . . where nothing dramatically good or bad could happen, where I was fully insured against catastrophe, I began to doubt the power of either unpleasantness or ecstasy to touch me."

Happily he learns otherwise, and Russo, with his leisurely pacing, deliberate dialogue and keen eye for details, shows that realism and farce are not distant cousins, that absurdity can be successfully mined from the ordinary events of an ordinary life without diminishing its humor and truth.

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