Saturday Special: Ring Lardner
In the first and best of all teenage angst epics, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield casually mentions that his favorite author, together with his brother, is Ring Lardner. Because of this passage, I've come to discover Lardner, and I'd like to use this blog to attempt to bring him back to the limelight. He is one of those rare people: a great comic writer. Not pompous, but colloquial; not showing off, but subtle; not thigh-slappingly hilarious, but poignantly, sometimes darkly humorous.
Lardner started out as a sports writer in the early 20th century, and while travelling across the country with baseball teams, he cautiously tried his hand at fiction by inventing the nonexistent Chicago Sox pitcher Jack Keefe. The ballplayer's letters to his friend Al back in Chi are typical of Lardner's style: unpolished language which makes the character's true thoughts utterly transparent to the reader. We learn that Keefe is constantly planning his big break, romance of a lifetime or radical new career move; and time and again, his bold projects go down the drain because there was something he didn't foresee. For example, his plan to dodge the World War I draft because he has to support a family is ruined because his wife opens a beauty salon. Keefe, then, is stupid in an endearing kind of way; and despite his pettiness, tantrums and sky-high esteem of himself, you can't help liking the guy and rooting for him.
As the teens turned into the twenties, Lardner began to grow in popularity and to hang out with the more high-brow writers of his day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. Fitzgerald continuously tried to push him into writing something less trivial than his little stories, obviously not recognizing the quality of prose that doesn't take itself too seriously, neither in style nor in volume. Lardner, luckily, ignored this advice but did expand his topics beyond baseball.
From this time are his best stories, among them 'Haircut', a single monologue by a barber, telling you, the reader sitting in the barber's chair, the story of 'this funny guy who used to live in our town'. The reader soon finds out that the 'funny guy' was actually a bullying brute who met a gruesome fate.
'Bob's Birthday' is a story about the desperate fate of a young man doomed to support his ungrateful, unemployed family, as told by his teenage sister, who perfectly prevents sentimentalism through her clumsy writing style and unaccusing interpretation of the facts.
Lardner's refusal to write about dramatic, 'big' themes or characters is exactly what makes his writing so accessible today. It's sad, then, that almost nobody's heard of him. His work was infrequently and never completely published, and his books are not always easy to track down. He died in 1933; his son, Ring Lardner jr, became a blacklisted movie script writer in the McCarthy era, and went on to write, among others, the script of M*A*S*H.