The rebel in an English Department is the only man not trying to play the straight man, because in Straight Man by Richard Russo, everyone is trying to play the straight man. Our rebel hero Hank Devereaux plays many different roles: chauvinist, innocent, guilt provoker, ingrate, curmudgeon, misogynist, religious, but never the straight man. He makes everything interesting; he makes people laugh and/or groan. I am attracted to just such a man, though my version is studying psychology while I am entering the English realm, which explains why I took such perverse delight in Hank’s antics.
The fact that everyone else is so serious and unhappy does indeed evoke the question: Why? Why not take things less seriously and have a little fun?
There is the right amount of absurdity and the mundane that makes this novel so appealing and truthful. The contrast and interweaving of comedy and tragedy is profound, and while the jokes are often at the expense or because of our hero, Hank is ultimately a likable character. You don't have to be an English major to laugh out loud at this one.