Straight Man by Richard Russo
I loved Straight Man. This might be partly (or largely) because its irreverent and sometimes hilarious portrayal of insecure, feuding university professors put to rest my long-held romantic visions of academia.
We used to live next-door to a BYU English professor in Provo. He and his wife had a beautiful brick house; we lived in a nondescript two-bedroom apartment. From our kitchen window, we looked out on their perfectly landscaped backyard, and sometimes I saw him or his wife relaxing on the back porch with a book. My oldest children were very young at the time, and as I washed dishes, gazing at their flowers and lawn and trees, I pretended that the professor’s backyard was my own, imagined myself sitting peacefully on the back porch, sipping herbal tea, reading, thinking intelligent thoughts. Sure, sometimes I saw Herr Professor or his wife out there flinging dog crap over the fence, but mostly their lives looked ideal—quiet, thoughtful, mentally stimulating, ordered. At a time when I was feeling kind of stuck at home with small, non-speaking humans, our scholarly neighbors solidified my vision of academia, and I’ve held onto that vision in spite of friends’ accounts of graduate school and my own experience with a manipulative professor, which didn’t happen until a few months before I got my degree.
Straight Man provided a convincing portrait of university professors that included all the elements of my romanticized vision but completed it with more realistic stuff, like inter-departmental conflict and politics, marriage and health problems, etc. And like I said, it’s pretty hilarious sometimes.
Empire Falls is probably Richard Russo’s most well-known novel, and I read that several years ago, but I thought Straight Man was much more fun.