BWW Reviews: RING LARDNER - STORIES AND OTHER WRITINGS Is Priceless
"Think!" Ella says. "What does she want to think for?"
"The novelty, I suppose," said I. (Ring Lardner: The Big Town)
Some writers are valued for the window they provide into their own time, others for their prescience. Ring Lardner, whose best work has, deservedly, now been put between a single set of covers by the Library of America, was the rare bird who delivered on both counts.
His style was narrow, lucid, caustic and, above all, penetrating. For a guy who stuck to a deceptively few types of expression--the sports column, the epistolary novel, the wry form of the short story and not much else (the only place this collection flags a bit is toward the end, where brief samples of his absurdist plays, song lyrics and letter writing are gathered)--his influence has lingered over an enormous amount of what has come down, generation by generation, ever since.
It's likely that no writer of Lardner's stature is so little known to the average reader today--or so deserving of rediscovery. Even those who recognize the name are apt, I suppose, to think of him in the narrow-cast terms his style does genuinely represent: basically, sportswriter or humorist.
Well, he was indeed a sportswriter (better yet--and highly unusual--one who knew something about sports). And he certainly was a humorist (better yet--and even more unusual--he was actually funny).
He's also, as this collection makes clear even to a long-time fan like me who should have already known it, a lost giant of American letters.
There are entire veins of American wit (situational, screwball, Algonquin Round Table, travelogue, anything with a wiseacre or a misanthrope in it and isn't that pretty much everything that's both genuinely American and genuinely witty?) in which nothing has happened for a century that falls outside of his shadow. I don't mean to imply that very many practitioners have been anywhere near as good. But there can't be much else that links Green Acres with Seinfeld or Chuck Berry with the Marx Brothers.
You can find echoes of Lardner's basic approach in all of that and much, much more. In his "Sketches and Reporting," he got to most of what New Journalism accomplished in the sixties and seventies in the teens and twenties. Hemingway and Fitzgerald practically idolized him. The specific rat-a-a-tat rhythms of the hard-boiled detective school (Hammett, Chandler, et al) are almost unthinkable without him.
But what struck me, yet again, as I happily coursed along through this well-chosen treasure trove of a collection--revisiting old favorites mixed in with new discoveries--was the old tried and true test of any really great writer. No matter how much "influence" one has, the artist's final value can always be measured by the continuing resonance of the actual work.
On that score, Lardner doesn't need to take a back seat to any of the legion who took up where he left off and carried pieces of his basic approach to every level of writing from the very highest brow to the very lowest, or, for that matter, to anyone who left off where he took up (up to and including Mark Twain).
Because over and over again, what anyone who trails along with Lardner keeps hearing is the uniquely American voice, couched in language that is often smarter than it seems (perhaps never more so than when it is proceeding from the mouths of bumpkins) but never too smart for its own good.
Some of Lardner's special mix of pertinence and impertinence is highly specific.
Read his descriptions of Ty Cobb's effects on both the sheer physical mechanics and the specific psychological atmosphere of an early twentieth century baseball game--told in the voice of an old timer instructing a rookie who's a little full of himself--and you can easily spot the links to Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods in our own time: "If the game's rotten or not, it don't make no diff'rence, and it don't make a whole lot even if he's havin' a bad day. They's somethin' fascinatin' in just lookin' at the baby."
Read him on a certain brand of social climber and you meet heartland versions of Paris Hilton or the Kardashian girls a century earlier: "The next thing they done was run over to Chi and buy all the party dresses that was vacant. Then they come back to South Bend and wished somebody would give a party." (Though, to be fair, Lardner's socialites discover their limits and finding, over and over, the poignancy of those limits is one of the special gifts that marks him off from even the best "humorists." He begins where most satirists end.)
Read him on the Florida tourist experience--a "windin' jungle trail that was every bit as wild as the Art Institute"--and you realize that, no matter how many layers of slickness the movie studios have laid over the top of of my home state in the long decades since, the huckster essence is still resting there underneath.
Those are cultural touchstones, but he can hit closer to home as well.
The budding psychotic in "My Roomy" reminded me of Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy"--you know, the one who dug up the girl he murdered and "built a cage with her bones." But because Lardner is never quite so over the top as that, his killer also brought up memories (as Zevon's song never has) of a kid named Chris, who I spent the longest hour of my life listening to when I was ten years old and standing in line for Little League tryouts and who was later cut from the team I made even though he was twice my size and, like the Roomy, could knock the cover off the ball.
I don't know where he is now, but, whereever he is, Lardner got me remembering him. And also hoping he--and whoever he ran into along the way--are okay.
And that's Lardner's most vital quality. However outlandish his language or his characters, he never let the "out there" qualities--be it psychosis or tetchiness or simple buffoonery--completely define his people. He always seemed to be working within the narrowest possible limits, yet he was forever transcending them.