“I Can’t Breathe” is the name of the first story I ever read by Ring Lardner. It concerns a well-to-do 18-year-old girl who is infatuated, off and on, with several boys. She is staying at an inn with her aunt and uncle who are ‘both at least 35 years old and maybe older’, and is keeping a diary to pass the time. The diarist records that her mother does not take seriously her present engagement to a young man named Walter. The mother has pointed out that she, the daughter, has been engaged some five times a year since the age of fourteen but: ‘of course it really isn’t as bad as that and I have really only been really what I call engaged six times altogether…’
Ring Lardner, sports columnist and short story writer, was born in Michigan in 1885 and died in 1933. He influenced many writers, perhaps most notably J. D. Salinger. Among the distinctive traits of his art was an uncanny ability to put down on paper the everyday speech-patterns of ordinary Americans. “The Golden Honeymoon”, for example, is told in first-person and begins: ‘Mother says that when I start talking I never know when to stop … I guess the fact is neither one of us would be welcome in a Quaker meeting, but as I tell Mother, what did God give us tongues for if He didn’t want we should use them?’
However, there is more to Lardner’s fiction than a gift for capturing humorous forms of speech. He was a very effective story-teller. And though he normally steered clear of the high drama of Faulkner or Hemingway or Fitzgerald, there is often an underlying gravity to his stories. An example of this is “Haircut”, which might be his greatest work. The narrator in this story is a small-town barber nicknamed Whitey who is relating a local tragedy to an anonymous and silent customer whom he is servicing. The tragedy concerns the late Jim Kendall, who is described as ‘a card’ and ‘kind of rough, but a good fella at heart’. The reader realizes early on that Jim Kendall was actually a shiftless and mean-hearted practical joker who got what he deserved. But what makes “Haircut” work so well is the moral insensibility of the narrator. In and of himself Whitey is a pleasant and harmless man; at times he seems genuinely kind. But his attitude toward the story he tells amounts to complicity with Jim’s evildoings.
In addition to the stories mentioned above, the ones I recommend most are “Alibi Ike”, about a baseball player whose harmless idiosyncrasy is to offer excuses or needless explanations for everything he says or does; also “Champion”, about a boxer who becomes a media darling despite the brutishness that attended his rise to the top. These and many other stories by Ring Lardner vindicate his distinguished place in American literature.