Ring Lardner first gained a reputation as a sportswriter. From the beginning, however, he often treated sports with irony and humor. Lardner admired thinking, hardworking athletes and made fun of those players whose talents were paired with flawed thinking. Later, Lardner left sportswriting to satirize wrongheadedness in other aspects of American culture in highly popular newspaper columns, essays, and works of fiction. During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Lardner was one of the highest-paid and best-known writers in the United States. A master of irony and the precise use of language, Lardner produced works that continue to impress readers with their insights into the ambiguities and contradictions of American society.
You Know Me Al is generally recognized as Lardner’s best attempt at long fiction. Lardner used the device of letters from a would-be big-league pitcher, Jack Keefe, to his hometown Indiana friend, Al Blanchard, to expose the narrator’s character flaws and the shortcomings of the popular association of the American Dream with material, romantic, and athletic success.
The phrase “you know me” was a common expression among friends in the early twentieth century, usually intended to elicit respect or support for the speaker’s accomplishments, personality, or behavior. In Lardner’s novel, however, the phrase becomes an ironic refrain that underscores the ineptness of the narrator, generally included after a particularly foolish outburst or confrontation. Such dramatic irony (that is, discrepancy between what characters think they are saying and what they are actually revealing) is a main tool used by Lardner to achieve humorous and satirical effects.
An important motive for Jack’s writing of letters is his desire to impress his hometown friend with his skills as a ballplayer, his income, and his success with women. Jack’s building up of himself is often undercut by his inclusion of details that suggest a different or opposite picture. For example, Jack boasts of his natural pitching talents, his gifted right arm, and his athletic physique, but he also notes that the manager and coach badger him into learning more about pitching, fielding, and especially thinking. Although his natural talent often results in wins, his other weaknesses lead to nearly as many losses. For example, Jack’s hatred of a romantic rival causes Jack to hit the man with a pitched ball when...
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