Straight Man, by Richard Russo

I’d recommend you read anything that Richard Russo writes — he’s fantastic. I read Empire Falls a couple of years back — a Pulitzer-winning novel. His novels aren’t really about all that much — mostly about small town life in the Northeast. But here’s why I read them: he writes with such empathy that you can’t help but like his main protagonist (in both books, a middle-aged man who’s too much a smartass for his own good, but can’t really help himself). Here’s the quote of the main character, who’s teaching his creative writing class:

“Is good fiction more likely to be about the air we breathe or the nose we breathe it through?”

He asks it as a leading question to his class; he’s saying that good fiction isn’t about the stuff that’s obvious & all around us — at some level, that’s history, or journalism, or something else. Good fiction helps us to understand our relationship with all that. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms before, but think it’s great & right on.

The book is funny, and painful, and true — I think the excerpt below (main character, 1st person point of view) is central (don’t read it if you want to read the book soon — it might not even make any sense):

“Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own…Only after we’ve done a thing do we know what we’ll do, and by then whatever we’ve done has already begun to sever itself from clear significance, at least for the doer. Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”

Great book.

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