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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Straight Man Adds Humor to our Holiday Party

Happy holidays! If you missed our book club party, you missed a festive feast! Everyone liked the beginning, middle, and end of the party, whether or not they liked the book of the day. Thanks much to Veronica for hostessing, supplying us with a variety of drinks and keeping the coffee flowing! We all enjoyed the comfort and beauty of Veronica's home.

We did not all enjoy Straight Man, by Richard Russo. At the count, 4 liked the book, 4 did not like it, 2 hadn't finished it, and the rest were still eating and partying. There were lots of topics  for discussion that this book evoked. Jennifer took us through a list of thought and interpretation questions. Some of these questions inspired us to identify key themes of the book, and others led us to simple answers from the story. 

Choosing three themes, I will go with the title of the book, the midlife crisis, and the man on the railroad tracks. Apologies to the dogs, the marriages, Hank's father and mother, Occam's Razor, and the university for not delving further into them here. We touched on all of them at the meeting.

After some discussion, I felt that the main theme of the book was middle age. There was a short poem at the beginning of the final section of the book that, in the way of poems, evoked a mood. This was the underlying mood of what Hank, the main character was going through (although he acted out a much lighter mood) and what his father before him had experienced. For the purposes of this book, the poem could be interpreted to be specifically about the decline of a person's career as well as offering more universal application to life. The poem, by Stephen Spender, says

What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away

Several characters in the book were struggling at the apexes of their careers. The stresses and choices varied among the characters. Some knew they had reached as far as they could go, and others didn't, but the reader knew. Hank's one-week midlife crisis, full of theatrical craziness that made the book fun to read, left him healing from the sad and difficult feeling of this poem. 

The apt title of the book, Straight Man, was reflected by the flippant remarks Hank seemed to think of at every juncture and sometimes by Hank's just plain acting flippantly. He made many editorial comments about his colleagues, to their faces and behind their backs, many of them sarcastic. Then, when the ducks were being killed, he gave "no comment" to the media, which essentially thumbed his nose at the entire situation and everyone concerned with it. According to Hank, the English faculty was always competing to give the straight line, so that someone could come back with a sarcastic remark. Hank's saying that everyone wanted to supply the straight line, when the reality was that everyone was competing to identify "straight" lines and make the sarcastic repartee, was one example of author Richard Russo's expertise in crafting the book. 

The author created a complex story with developed characters, meaningful themes, and humor. Richard Russo deserves credit for this. Apparently, his writing style did win him a Pulitzer Prize, though not for this book. But his expertise at the craft of the novel was evident in Straight Man

The man who let the train run over him haunted the main character and provided a contrast to the ways that Hank and others were coping with the difficulties in their lives. I think our book group's discussion of this topic says a lot about the book. One of us said that the railroad-track man literally "lost his head," clearly an allegorical theme in this story of people having to think fast and deal with immediate as well as continued stresses. Dennis mentioned that lying on the railroad tracks waiting would be a particularly miserable way to die, and Rutger grabbed that straight line and ran with it, cracking us all up by saying, "especially if the train is late!"

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