Above all, Lardner will always be known for his facility with words; specifically, he is renowned for his ear for regional dialects and the colorful conversations between his characters, most of which are carried on in regional vernacular. In addition, Lardner is noted for writing from a third-person point of view in which he uses a character within the story to narrate the tale for his readers.
Thematically, Lardner’s stories usually fall into one of two categories. First, there are the humorous stories that characterized much of the early part of his career. Often, these stories feature characters who suffer amusing difficulties because they cannot control their language. Indeed, Lardner seems obsessed with communication problems. Sometimes his characters fall into trouble because they are inarticulate, while other times the comedy results from the speech of a character who is too literal. Other stories feature flare-ups ignited by characters who will not listen to anyone, or who unconsciously use language to deceive others. Interestingly, Jack Keefe, the bumbling protagonist of You Know Me Al, is a perfect example of all four of these characteristics.
Often, Lardner’s humorous stories poke fun at fundamental human foibles, but they usually do so in a way that reaffirms the author’s faith in the basic goodness of his fellow human beings. Such is the case with “The Golden Honeymoon,” in which green-eyed jealousy comically and gently fades against the power of time-tested love.
Still, there is also the satiric Lardner, whose stories expose the ever-growing skepticism that the author felt regarding people as he entered the middle and later stages of his career. “Haircut” chillingly exposes the hypocrisy of small-town life in the United States. “The Love Nest” is a sad tale which criticizes the self-absorption and, ironically, the desperation of wealthy Americans in the 1920’s. “My Roomy” is a warning about the primal, volcanic violence that lies at the core of all human beings, who, it seems, are never far from erupting. “Champion” deals with the corruption in sports that Lardner had witnessed firsthand, as well as the inherent selfishness that he saw as defining most relationships in a capitalist system which pitted people against one another in constant competition. There is no question that his writing got darker and even became bitter as time wore on and as Lardner experienced America’s excessive materialism in the Roaring Twenties and the desperation of the ensuing Depression.
“Some Like Them Cold”
First published: 1921 (collected in How to Write Short Stories, 1924)
Type of work: Short story
An aspiring New York songwriter and a young woman from Chicago exchange letters which prove that both of them are opportunists who will likely wind up with what they deserve.
“Some Like Them Cold” is a good example of Lardner’s cynicism. Charles Lewis, an ego-driven but simple songwriter on his way to New York, meets the vivacious Mabelle Gillespie at the train station in Chicago. Charles promises to write his “girlie” as soon as he gets to New York. He does so, making sure to represent himself as a genius destined for stardom who wants to find a good, loyal wife. He takes care to let Mabelle know that he does not care for girls “on the make” and is therefore concentrating on his music despite the advances of several fast New York girls.
(The entire section is 1435 words.)