When We Fell In Love – Matthew Norman
Most book people get pretty neurotic when you ask them to tell you their favorite book of all time. They pace and stammer and ask a bunch of qualifying questions. Eventually, they resort to bargaining.
“You mean classic books from school, or, like, book-books? Novels, or does nonfiction count? You mean the book that I say is my favorite, or the book that’s actually my favorite? How about I give you a list of three? Wait, no…seven.”
It’s as if there’s a man standing in the room with them carrying a little chiseling hammer, waiting for the answer so he can carve the title onto their future headstones.
I am not burdened with such indecision, though—at least not on this topic. My choice: Straight Man by Richard Russo.
I actually remember the day I bought it. And that’s saying something, because I bought it in college, which is, at best, permanently blurry in my memory. I was in a little bookstore near my school, the University of Nebraska. Most of my friends were future businesspeople, and so I was alone, like I usually was in bookstores back then. The cover caught my eye as I browsed along aimlessly. It was orange with the title and author’s name in white, and there was the neck and head of a goose peeking up from the bottom. I can’t exactly explain why—sort of like when I saw my wife for the first time—but it was love at first sight.
In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea what the meant in a practical sense. I was reading a lot back then, but with little direction, jumping back and forth between crappy bestsellers about serial killers and dreadfully serious novels that had won awards. None of them, even the ones I enjoyed, seemed like anything I’d actually want to write.
Maybe I should I be a business person, too? I thought. Would I be required to wear a suit?
And then I read Straight Man, which taught me my most valuable lesson about writing to date. Serious novels are allowed to be funny.
And when I say “funny,” I’m not talking ironically funny or just witty, the kind of funny that makes you smile and nod when you’re reading. I’m talking funny-funny,the kind where you laugh so suddenly and loudly that people scooch away on the Metro because you may or may not be a crazy person. That’s how funny Straight Man is.
After a thoughtful, melancholy prologue about a boy who’s given a dying, elderly dog as a gift from his father, we’re introduced to our narrator, Hank Devereaux. He’s sitting in his friend’s car holding a wad of tissues to his nose. Why? Because his female colleague has just hit him in the face with her notebook, accidentally piercing his nose with its metal spiral. Over the course of the novel, Hank pisses a lot of other people off, too, most often by applying his keen ability to say the exact wrong thing at the worst possible moment. And even better, he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Along with infuriating almost every other character in the book, Hank lampoons academia, makes a mockery of political correctness, goes on the local news and threatens to kill a goose, tries to run his son-in-law out of town, advises a young writer to always understate necrophilia, and manages to complete the painfully difficult task of making the reader love him.
Woven in there, though—delicately and subtly—among the mix of absurdist and high-minded comedy, are classic elements of the best kind of fiction: vivid character development, struggles both internal and external, spot-on social commentary, a good bit of danger and suspense, self-destruction, insight, empathy, and, finally, a theme that writers have been exploring since cave paintings. No matter how hard we to try to fight it, we are all our parents’ children.
So go ahead, Mr. Imaginary Headstone Engraver. I’m ready to make it official. Straight Man by Richard Russo is my favorite book of all time.