Stories and Other Writings by Ring Lardner; Library of America, 961 pages ($35). The name of the story is “The Young Immigrants.” Ian Frazier, this indispensable volume’s editor, describes Ring Lardner’s 42-page piece from a January 1920 edition of the Saturday Evening Post as “an account of the Lardner family’s move from Chicago to Connecticut … playfully attributed to Lardner’s four-year old son Ring Lardner Jr., accompanied by a ‘preface by the father.’ ” Early in the story, the family arrives in Buffalo where they will travel by boat to Detroit at 9, though “I would better explain to my readers that when it is 9 o’clock in Buffalo, it is only 8 o’clock in Goshen, for instants (sic) as Buffalo people are qeer.” (sic) In Buffalo, the family fills up the gas tank for 27 cents and drives to Rochester.
It is a few pages later where we encounter the four words comprising the perfect Ring Lardner sentence – the stylistic essence of the 20th century’s greatest parodist and humorist to emerge from newspaper sports and drama duty. As the family drives from a stop in Manhattan, “we threatening to swoop down on Pittsfield./ “ ‘Are you lost Daddy’ I asked tenderly./ “‘Shut up,’ he explained.”
Anyone familiar with the compressed dialogue of American newspaper reportage knows those last four words to be a joke of genius. It’s also a constant paradox in Lardner’s writing, which, despite so much that is dated (nothing more than racial attitudes) is as current in the 21st century as it was almost a century ago. Here, for instance, is a conversation on a bath mat between two strangers “on a public street in a bathroom.” It’s from a surreal little gem called “I. Gaspiri” whose translation, we’re informed is, “The Upholsterers.” “First stranger: Where was you born? Second stranger: Out of wedlock. First stranger: That’s a mighty pretty country around there. Second stranger: Are you married? First stranger: I don’t know. There’s a woman living with me but I can’t place her.”
Yes, of course, the classics are here: “You Know Me Al,” selections from “How to Write Short Stories” (including “Alibi Ike”), “Haircut.” But it’s the other stuff – playlets, song lyrics, letters, reportage, etc. – that makes this so wonderful.
– Jeff Simon