“Haircut” is one of Lardner’s darkest satires. Told by the town barber, who insists to the end that Jim Kendall was basically a good man who was just a little wild, it is a story about moral blindness. The reader listens to the barber as he describes Jim’s pranks, all of which are distasteful jokes meant to make Jim feel powerful at the expense of others. For instance, Jim likes to play jokes on ten-year-old Paul Dickson, who is mentally handicapped as the result of being dropped on his head as a baby. In addition, Jim takes joy in planting doubts in the minds of husbands regarding their wives’ fidelity and delights in making fun of people’s physical deformities.
Jim allows his family to suffer in poverty, while he drinks his wages and spends his time trying to impress the other town ruffians with his cruelty. After young Julie Gregg refuses his advances, he plays a joke on her which humiliates her in front of the entire town. What Jim had not considered, however, was that Julie was one of Paul Dickson’s only friends. A few days later, Jim consents to take Paul on a hunting trip. Afterward, the townspeople think Jim’s being shot to death was an accident, but the reader is left with the impression that the “cuckoo” has had his revenge on Jim Kendall. It is a story that indicts everyone. Jim Kendall is cruel. The barber is so morally blind that he mistakes Jim’s evil for innocent fun. The townspeople never question Jim’s motives or those of his cronies at Wright’s poolroom and, because no one sees Paul as human, they cannot conceive of him plotting to kill Kendall. Even the reader is lulled to sleep by the easy delivery of the barber. It is only on the second read that many readers understand how terrible the people in this town are, and how awful Lardner thinks people are in general. This story is the basis of some critics’ claim that Lardner is a nihilist.
“Haircut” takes its title from the frame story, in which a barber is talking to a stranger in town as he cuts his hair. The barber is a naïve narrator who does not grasp the full impact of the story that he is telling. His narration concerns the town practical joker, Jim Kendall, who was recently killed in what everyone supposes was an accident.
The barber is a typical resident of a small, unnamed Michigan town near Carterville, who is telling the newcomer how, in his opinion, the liveliness of the town has diminished since the demise of Jim Kendall, whose shaving mug the barber still keeps on the shelf. He begins to illustrate Jim’s sense of humor by relating some of the practical jokes that Jim played, such as sending letters to men whose names he would see on signs of establishments in the towns that he passed through on the train. In the letters, he hinted that their wives were being unfaithful. The barber then fills in Jim’s background, describing how Jim lost his sales job and was reduced to taking odd jobs around town, spending most of what he earned on drink. Then, when his wife began trying to collect his salary before he got to it, he began borrowing against his wages in order to foil her plan, and, the barber adds, Jim punished her by inviting her and their two children to the circus, where he left them waiting at the tent entrance and never appeared with the tickets.
At this point in the narrative, the barber tells of how Doc Stair, a new doctor in the town, saw them and paid their way into the circus, thus incurring the enmity of Jim. The barber then describes how Doc Stair came to town and gradually built up a good practice, and how...
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