The last book I read was culturally significant but certainly not a page-turner. It was not light summer reading and now that we’re in the throes of summer in North Florida, I need something fun and familiar to read at night. It is about this time every year that I grow extremely homesick for Illinois and I was feeling a bit nostalgic so I picked a book that I’ve already read several times and one that reminds me of home. “Straight Man” by Richard Russo. The reason I get homesick at this time of year is mostly due to the extreme humidity coupled with the heat. As we say in the Midwest, “It’s not so much the heat as the humidity.” I feel like a fish out of water or more accurately, a human in water. It’s something I’ll never get used to and for about five months out of the year I feel that it’s best to stay indoors as I long for the cool breezes that are generated after a Midwestern rainstorm. After it rains in Tallahassee you can see the steam rise up from the pavement and things go from bad to worse. I still see people mowing their lawns at noon or jogging at 3:00 in the afternoon when the heat index is 105 and I just don’t understand this species of humans called Southerners. Short of moving back home, I’ll just curl up in the air conditioning with a good book and long for days gone by.
During my first semester at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, I showed up for Freshman Composition just like every other student. I was greeted by a particularly angry graduate student who seemed to hate our very existence every day of the week, or at least the three days a week that we were in his classroom. There was a lot of yelling and a fair amount of belittling. I just accepted this as the way things were but someone else (or several someone elses) must’ve complained because one day about seven weeks into the semester we showed up to class and he wasn’t there anymore. In his place stood Beckie Hendrick with her southern accent and her Sigourney Weaver hair and she was telling us that she was now our instructor and that we were starting the semester over. Our grades were being thrown out and we were getting a do-over with her. Needless to say, I liked her so much that I signed up for her American Literature class the next semester. She showed up as Beckie Flannagan as she’d gotten married since I had seen her last but otherwise, she was the same.
On the first day of American Literature, Beckie asked us to turn in a piece of paper with our name and what kinds of things we liked to read, and then she said the most amazing thing. She said it could be a comic book or the newspaper or whatever we really enjoyed reading. She wasn’t looking for the classics, just honesty. Since I had been sneaking into my dad’s room when he wasn’t home and reading his books chapter by chapter since I was nine years old, I wrote down Stephen King.
One day Beckie Flannagan brought in a novel called “The Risk Pool” by Richard Russo and she told us that her professor had written it and that we were going to be reading and discussing this book. Outside of my own dad’s high school rhetoric classes where we dissected mostly ancient writings such as “Beowulf,” and maybe “The Great Gatsby” in another high school class, I had never discussed a book before. I had only read them. Here we were talking about characters and plot and writing and all things pertaining to a book that was not only set in my lifetime but was also written right there at my university by my instructor’s professor. Everything felt so accessible. And then there was Beckie Flannagan herself. Isn’t that just the greatest literary name you’ve ever heard? She was smart and kind and funny and maybe I’m reading too much into this but I think she may have been the first feminist that I knew. She never told me that she was a feminist but just the fact that she had taken over the classroom from this horrible man my freshman year and turned everything around pretty much sealed the deal for me. I loved her.
I never saw her again after that semester but when I went home that summer with “The Risk Pool” in hand, my dad saw it and showed me that he had Russo’s first and third novels and so we exchanged them and each read the books we hadn’t previously read. He told me the third book was being made into a movie with Paul Newman and I really felt this was a rare moment of connection between my dad and I, standing in his basement of books, discussing books. I remember going to see the movie with him and we both left mumbling the age-old, “wasn’t as good as the book.” Dad died in 1997 before “Straight Man” came out in paperback, which means he never got a chance to read it unless he borrowed the hardcover from the library as he rarely spent the money on hardcover editions. It definitely wasn’t in his collection when he died. I know he would’ve loved it. Even though he was a high school teacher in rural Illinois, I know he would’ve related to the main character’s dry humor and his struggle with academic life at a small college in Pennsylvania.
Richard Russo had moved on from SIU-C when I was still in attendance there and long before “Straight Man” was written but this passage from the book always stops me in my tracks when I come upon it.
“On my way back across campus, I see Bodie Pie slip into Social Sciences via the back door and remember she wanted to talk to me, so I follow, risking the possibility that I’ll get lost in the building’s legendary labyrinths. Social Sciences, the newest building on campus, was built in the midseventies, when there was money for both buildings and faculty. According to myth, the structure was designed to prevent student takeovers, and this may be true. A series of pods, it’s all zigzagging corridors and abrupt mezzanines that make it impossible to walk from one end of the building to another. At one point, if you’re on the first floor, either you have to go up two floors, over, and down again or you have to go outside the building and then in again in order to arrive at an office you can see from where you’re standing. The campus joke is that Lou Steinmetz has an office in the building but no one knows where.”
It is obvious to me that he is writing about Faner Hall at SIU-C. This is where the English department was housed and probably where Russo’s office was located. This is the building where the previous classes that I wrote about took place. As a student, if you received your schedule and you had a class in Faner Hall, you always went the day before classes began and tried to find your classroom. It usually took about 30 minutes to figure out which door you should enter and which stairway you needed to take even if you’d had multiple classes there before. We usually went in groups so no one got lost, as if we were on a dangerous hiking expedition. We were also told that it was built after the Vietnam War protests in the 1970’s that burned down the old campus. There was a monument next to the building in homage to Old Main. It was considered a “riot proof” building. Russo describes it perfectly. We HATED it. I wonder if Russo had become nostalgic about that building as he writes about it and about the hilarity of the tensions and hierarchy of academic life.
During my junior year at my summer job at the university library, I would see the graduate student from my class who lost his teaching job. We were both working on the 7th floor in the archives, or as the long term employees called it, “where the books go to die.” He seemed the same to me although to be fair, no one who worked on the 7th floor seemed happy. The students weren’t allowed to talk to each other and we had to ask to use the restroom. I thought it was the perfect place for him to live out his days.
After having been to graduate school myself and briefly teaching as an adjunct instructor, I start to think maybe there was more to that angry graduate student than I was aware of. Having spent a small amount of time in Academia, I am now aware that removing a graduate student from a teaching assignment is no small feat. We never asked any questions about where he went or what had prompted his removal. We just didn’t care. We were happy about who The Universe and the English department had plopped down in his place and we didn’t rock the boat with questions for fear that things could change again.
God help anyone who ever had to grade anything that I wrote. I once took an honors class where all we did was read Tennessee Williams plays and then watch them in movie form and then we had to write a couple of papers. The only reason I was in the honors program is because I was an art major and got really good grades in all my art classes. The other students in class were science majors who were taking a break by being in this honors class. They thought I was inferior and they certainly let me know. I remember the professor used to give my papers back with comments such as, “Your writing is awful” written in red ink. I know that I overuse commas and sometimes change tenses mid-sentence. I am aware that art is my strength. Out of all of the classes outside of the art department that I ever took as an undergraduate student, Beckie Hendrick Flannagan is the only instructor’s name that I still remember these 27 years later and I only remember one thing she told me and it was on that very first day of American Literature. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading as long as you’re reading. I can still hear her voice in my head with every page I turn.