Ring Lardner wrote the funniest stand-alone sentence using the fewest words with which that feat can be done: “‘Shut up,’ he explained.” That record will be hard to break, at least in English.
By Bill Marx
Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings, Edited by Ian Frazier. Library of America, 974 pages, $35.
Canadian humorist Mordecai Richler, in a warm appreciation of Ring Lardner (1885-1933), sees him as “a legitimate heir of Mark Twain,” capable of being “very, very funny” but also toting a “sharp knife.” I would argue that there is more than a little Ambrose Bierce in Lardner’s brand of blood letting as well. (See Bierce’s “Disintroductions”: “All men are equal; the devil is a man; therefore, the devil is equal.”) Lardner’s light/dark duality explains the wide expanse of his admirers. Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald adored his sympathetic treatment of hapless characters and brilliant manipulation of the American argot (by way of non sequiturs, misspellings, malapropisms, exaggeration, and zeugma). H.L. Mencken and others reveled in Lardner’s satiric gifts as a merciless dissector of “Boobus Americanius.”
Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings offers an opportunity to appreciate Lardner in the round. There are his classic short stories, such as “The Golden Honeymoon,” “Champion,” and “Haircut,” that nimbly limn casual American brutality and/or banality. The ace humorist is represented by his masterpiece, You Know Me Al, along with lesser known examples of his comic artistry, including absurdist playlets, fractured fairy tales, and texts such as The Real Dope, The Young Immigrunts, and The Big Town, the latter festooned with such indelible sentences as “The ladies was shaking like an aspirin leaf, but in a few minutes, in come mine host.”
I sent a few questions via e-mail to the volume’s editor, New Yorker writer and humorist Ian Frazier, about his estimation of Lardner’s comic brilliance, its relevance today, and whether it has influenced his own work, which includes Coyote v. Acme, On the Rez, and Travels in Siberia.
Arts Fuse: What made you want to edit this volume of Stories & Other Writings by Ring Lardner?
Ian Frazier: I’m a longtime Lardner fan, I feel a sort of kinship to him and Ellis Abbott as fellow Midwesterners, and I’m flattered to be a part of the prestigious LOA.
AF: Besides the usual suspects, such as “Haircut” and “The Golden Honeymoon,” what are some of your favorite stories? Reading through the volume I discovered some lesser known treasures (at least to me), such as ‘”Travelogue” and “Zone of Quiet.”
Frazier: Yes, I like the Michigander tone of “Travelogue”– reminds me of Bo Schembeckler, former U. of M. football coach. I liked the story “Poodle” a lot, for its strangeness and for the fact that it came toward the end of Lardner’s life.The wacky plays were new to me, and reminded me of Becket in ovo. I liked the letters, which I also didn’t know. This man wrote beautifully from a young age.
AF: In what ways has Lardner’s work influenced your own writing?
Frazier: I’m not a natural writer like Lardner, so reading him has made me aware of what I can’t do — misspell effortlessly and for comic effect, for example. That awareness makes me go to my strengths, which are more in the line of humdrum fundamentals. Like trying to get facts right, and to remember any random funny thing I happen to say so I can preserve it and laboriously insert it into my writing later.
AF: Does Lardner remain relevant to writers (comic or otherwise) today? Or is he primarily of historical importance, a dated lampoonist?
Frazier: He is extremely relevant. He wrote for a living and wrote classics, and that’s the best way to go, in my opinion. It’s what Shakespeare did. As a plan for doing good work, writing well for money beats the hell out of MFA programs — also in my opinion. (I have taught occasionally in MFA programs, and many of my friends teach more or less full-time. But I think the Lardner method is vastly better.)
AF: Lardner admirer H. L. Mencken wrote that “all his people share the same amiable stupidity, the same transparent vanity, the same shallow inconsequentially; they are all human Fords, and absolutely alike at bottom.” Do you agree? And can that be seen as a limitation — focusing his satire on a narrow swath of America?
Frazier: I think Mencken had problems with humor. I.e., he had no sense of it. To me, Lardner’s characters are extremely varied and complex, though his vision may have been generally (but not unremittingly) dark. The “narrow swath” of America that he focused on he saw and portrayed so clearly that it could stand for the whole, I think. Especially for the whole of America in the rather stark first half of the twentieth century.
AF: The plays and some of the sketches suggest that Lardner was a pioneer in free-wheeling American farce. Are they worth taking seriously now? If so, why?
Frazier: See above about the plays. Modern playwrights will profit from reading them, and may aspire to be similarly prescient and ahead of their time.
AF: Many think You Know Me Al: A Busher’s Letters is Lardner’s masterpiece, among the finest novels about sport. Would you say that his greatest strength was following in the footsteps of Mark Twain — the creation of characters (inevitably big talkers) with distinctive American voices?
Frazier: Lardner was less philosophical and more matter-of-fact than Twain. He was not a performer, as Twain was. I agree that You Know Me Al is a masterpiece, and a voice that has become permanently part of America. Like Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and True Grit, Lardner’s book is one of the great American novels written in a voice. But I think the greatness of You Know Me Al points to what is essential and excellent about Lardner. He was a gifted writer — that’s why he and Fitzgerald, another man of huge natural gifts, were a good pair. I think of Lardner as the literary equivalent of a once-in-a-generation athlete, like Ty Cobb or Mariano Rivera. He played in a tough league, he had a great (though too-short) career, and he set a record that I don’t believe will ever be broken, like Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak. Lardner wrote the funniest stand-alone sentence using the fewest words with which that feat can be done: “‘Shut up,’ he explained.” That record will be hard to break, at least in English. You might say Henny Youngman tied him with “Take my wife– please!” But Henny wasn’t a writer. It’s harder to do in cold type, and anyway, “‘Shut up,’ he explained” is funnier. If you haven’t yet read The Young Immigrunts, in which that quote appears, read it, please. I think it’s one of the funniest stories of all time, and it alone would justify Lardner’s fame.
AF: Lardner’s favorite bird was the buzzard. What’s yours?
Frazier: The red-winged blackbird. I fish, and it loves swamps, and I’m happy when we’re in each other’s company.