my writing notebook: straight man

Richard Russo
Straight Man
Vintage paperback

On Super Dialogue (of which Russo is a master):

(“as if” and other ways to give your dialogue more power)

  • “that would be illegal,” Teddy said, but his voice didn’t fall quite right, leaving an implied “wouldn’t it?” hanging in the air. (19)
  • “It’s nice to be flirted with occasionally,” she tells him, though if I’m not mistaken this remark is aimed at me. (21)
  • “I know, Hank,” she says, as if she’d like me to understand that this isn’t all she knows. (33)
  • “How come you and Mom never jog together?” my daughter asks so seriously that I’m momentarily puzzled. I’ve heard the words, but the tone of my daughter’s voice suggests a different sort of question entirely, something more on the order of “How come you and Mom have separate bedrooms?” (46)
  • “You’re supposed to know,” Julie explains. “You’re supposed to pay attention.” I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that this remark is addressed to Russell more than me, and from the look on his face, I’d say he’s come to the same conclusion. (47)

On why I didn’t finish this book:

That I did not finish a book often reflects nothing other than my mood at the moment I’m reading it. Sometimes I’m too impatient for a lovely slow beginning. Sometimes I want a book I don’t have to struggle through. Sometimes I want a book that will wrap itself around my heart and not let go until the last word. Straight Man is well written as you can see from the passages above. It’s funny. And it’s clever. I recommend it if or when you’re in that kind of mood.

    • Often your subjects are trivial, and even then…you lack high seriousness, Henry. Weight, for want of a better word. There, I’ve said it. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but the truth is that there’s nothing more shallow than cleverness. You’ve become a clever man.” (his mother) (92)

On writing workshops:

  • “I have to go teach a class.” … “Oh, yes,”she recalls. “The one where everybody talks but you….Before you illuminate all those young minds with your eloquent silence, would you mind…” (94)

12 thoughts on “my writing notebook: straight man

  1. Huh. I’m not so sure. When I read those quotes they sort of irritated me. All that “as if” and descriptions of puzzlement and tone and whatnot–an awful lot like ordinary telling. Pleasant telling, yes. But I’d rather pick up what’s going on by being able to see the characters interacting rather than hearing the thoughts of a character actively interpreting/second-guessing/re-shaping what’s just been said. On the other hand maybe these quotes irritate me only b/c they’re grouped. If judiciously sprinkled over a large number of pages, maybe I wouldn’t feel like I was being “told.”


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Claire. It’s interesting to hear a different perspective because I love Russo’s writing here. The narrator’s insights into the other characters based on their words made the narrative feel layered and rich–and showed the narrator’s wit and his powers of perception.


  2. I’ve put down many books and read them years later to find that I loved them the second time around and could not figure out why I didn’t the first time. My eventual conclusion was the same as yours: mood. And I was in the right one when I read Russo’s Straight Man because I loved it. Whatever you do, don’t give it away. Pick it up again in a year or so, and try it again.


  3. So funny – I’m reading Straight Man right now. I brought a copy to Chile about five years ago and left it there. I got to my in-law’s house with only my kindle and iPad and was so in the mood for real paper. I found Straight Man high on a shelf and decided to give it another tey. I’m half way through it. The thing is I love Richard Russo. In particular The Bridge of Sighs – is an amazing book. Hope you’re doing well….



    • Hi Tina! What a coincidence, especially given that the book was published in 1997. And I agree about The Bridge of Sighs–my favorite of his. Good to hear from you.


  4. I LOVE the way he explains and interprets others’ dialogue, statements. It is what we as humans do, always, and he’s trying to reflect that. Most communication is nonverbal even if it’s verbal.


  5. Russo is one of my favorite authors and this was one of my favorite books. It’s right up there with Jane Smiley’s Moo at capturing academia brilliantly. I thought it was hilarious. I read it ages ago when we first moved to this small college town. If you’re looking for more of a story arc, try my other favorite, Empire Falls.


  6. I have not read Richard Russo–he’s always in a reading stack somewhere–now, I’ll give Straight Man a try as the comparison to Jane Smiley’s Moo cinched the deal for me. Thanks for another great review, Cynthia.



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