Monday, January 25, 1999

Straight Man by Richard Russo

This morning, though it may surprise you, I want to talk to you about a male author, and not just to pan him or to complain about the self-absorption of male writers. I read a number of male authors this past summer, and among the very best of those is Richard Russo. Today, I want to talk to you primarily about his novel Straight Man (published in ‘97), but I will mention also a much earlier book of his, The Risk Pool.

Let me begin by saying that Russo is a superb writer—a genuine craftsman of words. His narrative flows, his characters live and breathe, and there is a surprising amount of content in his books (beyond the existential self-absorption of so many even good male authors). His stories draw you along, and his characters seem to move of their own volition; you do not constantly feel his presence in the wings, making his characters do things for him in order to either get across his points or simply make him money.

Perhaps the story-line in Straight Man is particularly interesting to me because it is an insider’s view of universities, of the politics that rule there, the petty feuds and ego-wars, the power of administrators (mostly for ill, but occasionally for good), and the incredibly jaundiced views that many professors have of their students. Russo is wise enough to see, at least at times, that it is mainly the bad teachers who see their students as fools and drones—that it is their own lack of enthusiasm for their subjects and/or real attention to their students that leads them to conclude that is the students, rather than themselves, who are in need of an overhaul. As Rebecca Goldstein has revealed so well and with such humor in The Mind-Body Problem, many university professors see their own academic work and careers as the really important business of universities, and they lament each Fall when the students come back and get in the way. While administrators and academic unions pay lip service to teaching ability, it is well known from within that it is publication in professional journals that determines pay and promotion. Indeed, the more attention teachers pay to students, to reading and commenting on papers, to conferencing in sustained and intense ways, and to constantly preparing for and changing their basic courses, the less time they have for professional meetings and for working on (often esoteric) academic writing. Thus, if career and promotion are the main goals, then teachers ‘can’ their courses (meaning that they do not revise, do not refresh, they simply teach what they have taught), and, predictably, they ignore students.

Instead of merely saying all of these things, Russo shows the reader how it all works. How teachers turn the blame on students when their own performances are desultory or worse, and how the pressure to publish or perish leads quite naturally to worse and worse teaching. Russo’s telling of the story is very, very funny, almost as humorous as Jane Smiley’s wonderful laugh at academia in Moo. And while Russo is hard on teachers, he is sympathetic as well; he realizes very well the conflicting demands that are placed on them, and the bad consciences that lead them finally to malign the very students they are shortchanging.

While it is always dangerous to conclude that the views of the narrator of a novel are also those of the author, I have to add here that humor and insight aside, Straight Man is still too hard on students. He speaks of the “militant ignorance” of today’s students. And in another passage says, “This particular group of students, like so many these days, seems divided, unequally, between the vocal clueless and the quietly pensive,” and he complains again and again of student apathy and boredom. No doubt there are a lot of bored and apathetic students, but in my thirty years of teaching, it is the students who provided the fire; it was they in whom I witnessed over and over an intellectual curiosity and desire to learn that kept me alive, kept me reading and wanting to find better ways to teach, kept me experimenting with writing assignments that would, more and more (instead of less and less) tap their creativity and feed the curiosity, convince them of their own abilities. Perhaps the difference is that Russo is talking of a rather small-city university with predominantly young students, unlike the urban campus and the wonderful age mix that I experienced at Portland State University. I noticed plenty of teacher apathy and discontent, but in almost every class there were some, often many, students who thrived on real attention to them as learners and who grew and changed before my eyes.

At any rate, a reader could get much from this book simply because of the insights it gives us into university life and the toll that underfunding and overcrowding has had on state institutions. In addition, and much to his credit, Russo really wants to talk about and describe and understand human relationships. He is more than willing to talk about emotion, and about the one-dimensional emotional plasticity of so many men. Indeed, instead of seeing women as lacking something (reason or logic or true intelligence), he sees clearly that it is men who lack what May Sarton has called emotional intelligence. However, in his zeal to talk about what men lack and what women (at least often) have, I think Russo makes a mistake almost as grievous as the male authors who dismiss women as weak or illogical. The lead character has a deep respect for his wife and for her ability to understand both him and their children, and he sees a corresponding lack in himself. But even as he extols her virtues, her emotional insight, he seems to embrace a kind of essentialism that is very dangerous in its own way. In both books I am talking about today, Russo describes men who suffer from a physically or emotionally absent father, and who clearly see a depth to their mothers simply not had by the fathers. But he treats that depth as some sort of mystery, not only unknown, but unknowable by men. And, clearly, the danger with that sort of essentialism is that it lets men of the hook by claiming that they are unable to really understand or even really attend to their children and spouses.

Without giving away much of the plot, let me quote a couple of passages that I think evidence this sort of slide into essentialist adoration. In the first, the male lead character is trying to comfort his adult daughter who is in distress about her own marriage.
Throughout this exchange, Julie has made no move to get up from the sofa, and I have not taken so much as a step toward her. What we’re missing, of course, what we need most, is Lily {the wife and mother}, not so much so we’ll know what to do as so we’ll know how to feel, to be sure which emotions are valid. There are times when I can read my wife’s soul in her face, and in such moments I can almost read my own.
In another passage, our hero is feeling lost and lonely because his wife is away on a trip while his relationships with his daughters and his colleagues are deteriorating.
... it’s both wonderful and oddly sad to hear the familiar voice of this woman who shares my life, to feel how much I’ve missed it. By what magic does she softly say my name and so doing restore me to myself? More important, why am I so often ungrateful for this gift? Is it because her magic also dispels magic?
And when he begins to express the troubles his daughter is having in her own marriage, troubles that he was blithely ignorant off until his daughter calls him in a frenzy, his wife explains that the trouble has been brewing for along time. He says, “Why didn’t I know it?” And, after a pause, she responds, “I don’t know Hank. Why don’t you know these things.” And she has to explain to him that he depends on her to know them.

Of course, he does depend on her to attend, to really look, and that conveniently excuses his failure to do so. But it is not good enough to say that she succeeds in attending because she is a woman (with her magic) and that he fails because he is a man and lacks that magic. It is not magic; it is, rather, the difference between really attending and not doing so.

I admire Russo for noticing how emotionally bankrupt many men are, how hollow they are as parents, as spouses, even as friends, and I applaud him for calling them to task for it, for seeing it as a lack. But, at least in these two books, he seems to be suggesting that it cannot be otherwise. We need the magic of women, we need their emotional intelligence in order to complete ourselves as persons, as caretakers. I certainly agree that many/most men need to learn to attend better, to see the lack of emotional intelligence as a lack rather than a strength, and I also agree that one is more likely to find genuine morality (attention) in women, but it does not have to be that way. It is not that women are essentially good or caring and men essentially bad or selfish. We men can become more attentive partners, better parents, better friends (who learn how to listen, to suspend, at least momentarily, the veil of selfishness through which we usually see the world). Like racist essentialism, essentialism with respect to sex is neither helpful nor true.

To recap, Richard Russo is a fine writer and one who wants to talk about important social and political issues (though he may sacrifice content for humor a bit too often). Unlike many masturbatory male authors absorbed by their own adventures and need for freedom, he sees lacks, realizes a need for men to complete themselves, to acknowledge and try to understand relationships and emotions, though he (in my opinion) opts too easily and too early for an essentialism that gives into a spurious necessity.

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