I've been going through life for quite some time thinking Snow Crash was my favorite novel, and I've read it enough times that I need to purchase a new copy. Among the top several I've long included Straight Man by Richard Russo, which I picked up again on Friday because after the wretched disappointment of Charlotte Simmons I wanted to read something very good.
So it is an amusing coincidence that after this second read, Straight Man has replaced Snow Crash at the top of my list of favorites, and I need to purchase new copies of both.
The first several pages of my copy of Straight Man are now forever affixed to one another with two-ton epoxy. The chair for which I bought the epoxy remains broken and probably needs to be replaced. The sequence of events that brought this about were absurd, but of course anyone who knows me would have been able to predict what would happen as soon as I cut open the tube. At least the cat didn't step in it, which had been my biggest fear going in.
Anyway. Why do I like this book so much? Is it just a case of comparison against a very bad book? I don't think so; on Saturday morning I reread The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for the umpteenth time after watching the movie, so I had a good book in between Charlotte and this one. I think it's something more.
For starters, Richard Russo has a gift for marrying melancholy with farce that no other writer I know of can match. It's not enough simply to have a melancholy scene followed by a funny one; at the heart of Russo's funniest moments is a touch of sadness, a feeling that the characters know exactly what they're doing and that it won't end well, but can't stop themselves nonetheless. Fatalism is a very melancholy attitude. And, too, some of the saddest and most affecting moments in this book coexist with an ironic humor born of the characters' ability to step back and see their lives for what they are—no matter how much it may seem that fate has intervened, that something was inevitable, there is always the knowledge that in fact it isn't fate at all, that every moment is put in place by some earlier action.
We should all be so gifted as to see—or even have shown to us—the chain of choices that bring us to our greatest sadness or greatest joy. But we aren't. This is what literature gives us.
In thinking about the contrast between Straight Man and Charlotte Simmons I was struck by how few times—exactly once—in this book I felt a character did or said something that didn't connect, didn't make any sense. Comparatively I was constantly jarred by the bizarre characterizations in Charlotte Simmons. I couldn't even what it was that bothered me in this book, when I went to find it just now. It must not have been important.
And I like that. That's good writing. The fact that the book is an uproarious scream and a sad introspection at the same time is good writing, and entertaining, too. That our narrator, Hank Devereaux, is undergoing a midlife crisis so easily recognizeable to things in my own life just makes the story better.
I can't wait to go buy a new copy and read it all over again.