The question that inevitably arises in any discussion of Ring Lardner’s stories is: What is Lardner’s attitude toward his characters and by extension toward the culture out of which they come? Is Lardner, in other words, a misanthrope who hated not only his own characters but also himself, or is he, rather, a disappointed idealist who found in the world of his immediate experience constant instances of cruelty, vulgarity, and insensitivity? Those who point to Lardner’s sheltered upbringing and the apparently happy family life both of his early years and of his later married life favor the latter view, while those who wish to find in his fiction some affirmation of the goodness of human beings prefer the former. Obviously, no final answer to the question is possible.
If one reads an early story such as “Champion,” one sees a heavy-handed author stacking the cards against his brutal hero, Midge Kelly. Midge beats his crippled brother to steal his half dollar and, when their mother objects, beats her too. Thereafter Midge’s life is a succession of victories and brutalities: He becomes a prizefighter who wins fight after fight and, at the same time, does in those who have befriended him. Although his crippled brother is sick and unable to get out of bed and longs to have a letter from his famous brother, Midge refuses to write. When his wife and son are ill and destitute, he tears up a letter from his wife begging for help. He fires the manager who has helped make him a champion fighter and heaps money on a woman who is obviously using him, although he later casts her off, too, and then takes for himself the wife of his new manager. Through the obvious card-stacking one sees Lardner’s intention. He hates brutality and he hates the way brutality is not only ignored but also rewarded in our society. Midge Kelly is not a believable character; he is a symbol on which Lardner heaps all of the abuse he can muster. If it were not for the brutality, “Champion” would be a maudlin tearjerker.
The truth seems to be that, underneath the pose of the realist, observer, and reporter of American crudities, Ring Lardner was a sensitive, even a sentimental man. The monologue form exactly suited his need to keep the sentimentality out of sight while letting his crude, vulgar, insensitive types condemn themselves out of their own mouths, but it was also a way of allowing the victims of the bullies to engage the reader’s sympathies without having to make them stereotyped victims: cripples who are beaten, mothers knocked down by their sons, abandoned wives and babies. Lardner’s best stories present the reader with a story in which the real author has all but disappeared while his narrator tells his ironically revealing, self-condemning tale.
One of the best of Lardner’s stories, “Haircut,” is told by a barber who is giving a haircut to an unnamed stranger in a small Midwestern town. The hero of the barber’s tale is Jim Kendall, a practical joker, whom the barber describes as “all right at heart” but whom the reader quickly sees as a man who enjoys inflicting pain on other human beings under the guise of being funny. To pay his wife back for getting his paycheck (he gives her no money to run the household), Kendall tells her to meet him with their children outside the tent of a visiting circus. Instead of joining her there with the tickets as he promised, he hides out in a saloon to savor the joke he is playing on his family. Meanwhile, a new doctor in the town, “Doc” Stair, appears on the scene, and feeling sorry for the mother with the crying children, buys the tickets for them. When Kendall hears how Doc Stair spoiled his fun, he gets furious and vows revenge. He tricks a young woman, Julie Gregg, who is “sweet on” Doc Stair, into coming into the doctor’s office...
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