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"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.

So the still recognizable American types keep coming at you, page after page:

The composer's long-suffering wife in "Liberty Hall": "He used to take me along for these out-of-town openings, but not any more."

Then to the other side of the fence for a frustrated husband in "Poodle": "Well, during the first week of my married life I passed a resolution to never tell Mary any bad news, and the result was that I'd practically become a mute except when I made a few local stops on the way home from the office."

Then to that same husband's desperate search for employment after he's been laid off and is beating the pavement, looking for a job--any job--that will keep him from having to tell her that "bad news": "They wanted a man to cut boudoir dolls; if they'd engaged me, I wouldn't have known whether to use a razor or an ax."

There's a whole world in that "if." A world of frustration and fear that often underlay the braggadocio in Lardner's characters, whether they are big time athletes, show biz hoofers or middle-age couples trying the impress their neighbors with either their parsimony or their profligacy, depending on the circumstance. Even though his art bloomed in the Roaring Twenties, the threat of permanent hard times to come--and the American need to alternately brag about how much we spent on something we didn't need or how little we spent on something we did need--are never far from the surface.

That undertow of unease found its purest expression in his very best stories: It's there in the heartache and loneliness lying at the core of "Some Like Them Cold" (a Hank Williams song thirty years early). It's there in the web of deceit operating inside the loveless mansion of "The Love Nest." It's there even in the domestic aspects of Lardner's most famous work You Know Me Al, the serialized novel that follows the adventures of a fictional pitcher for the real life Chicago White Sox and which made Lardner's reputation.

The book is still a primer on the transient life (that of the ballplayer, the rock star, the traveling comedian and, perhaps not coincidentally, the carny hustler--my dad lived that last and if half the stories told me were true, I feel a certain pang knowing Lardner, who died a few years before dad took up the life, didn't live quite long enough to boil it down to a short story for me) and on the kind of personality needed to sustain an unholy self-confidence under the glare of a spotlight which burned very nearly as brightly in the age of yellow journalism as it does in the age of the Internet.

You Know Me Al's narrator, Jack Keefe, is the sort of fellow who (in the sequel, The Real Dope, is convinced that if he could get General Pershing's ear for a few minutes, the Great War would be over in a week or two--and he goes right on being convinced even though his advice is the sort that leads to losing baseball games. It's still good advice, you see, because the losing part was somebody else's fault. He's also the sort who can say "I wish they was two of me so both them girls could be happy," and believe it so thoroughly that it's more disarming than off-putting.

No need to go looking for Jack Keefe in a major league dugout--I think we've all met him somewhere or other!

No matter how much we keep telling ourselves things have changed, human nature hasn't, and this volume is the first book I would give to anyone who likes to kid themselves otherwise.

For all the truth and beauty on ample display, though, what really makes this collection sing is something a little simpler.

The man was funny. And he knew all about us.

The vaudeville comedian who wants to play Hamlet:

"'But he was so serious,' said the Mrs. 'He didn't say nothing funny.' 'Sure he did,' I says. 'Didn't he say artists hate to talk about themselfs?'"

The older gentleman desperate to keep up his credentials as a ladies' man and failing miserably everywhere except his own mind:

"He had a gal with him that looked like she might be his mother with his kid sister's clothes on." (Ouch!)

The talking heads on ESPN?

"The result of this bout was so nearly a foregone conclusion that even the experts had guessed it."

The guy who repeats everything you say back to you?

He's here, too, except in "On Conversation" Lardner has him talking to another version of himself, so you end up listening in on two men traveling by train who manage to tell each other they are headed for "the big town" about twelve times in three pages. In life, you would probably want to take after them with a blunt instrument. In Lardner, they get funnier with every exchange.

And then there's my personal favorite, the incurable flirt trying to manage three fiances in "I Can't Breathe": "The more I think the worse it gets."

She solves the problem, of course.

By promising to marry a fourth.

Pretty sure I've met her, too.

And that's finally the highest value here. Lardner's good friend H.L. Mencken believed that Lardner was merely intent on mocking ordinary boobs--that, in other words, he shared Mencken's own contempt for the common man.

Maybe he did.

But it doesn't come across that way. Unlike Mencken or Twain or virtually any genuine misanthrope you can name, Lardner conveyed a subtle, but deeply felt, compassion for even his most hapless subjects.

The gaze was clear, sometimes cold, often discomforting. And Ring Lardner never blinked.

But the reason he hasn't dated a whit, is that he never looked down.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)