After last weekend's short story success I am going to spend a little more time with Short Story Masterpieces edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine or perhaps another anthology of classic short stories. There are so many authors to explore--some I have heard of but never read and some completely new to me. I see lots of familiar names of authors whose works have been widely anthologized, and my mood is turning me in their direction at the moment. Ring Lardner falls into that first category. Isn't Ring (short for Ringgold) a cool name? I think he is best known for his sports writing and his satirical stories about a number of topics including sports, marriage and theater. Interestingly the two stories I read indeed focus on the latter two subjects.
The second story I'm going to tell you about is from an older, out-of-print collection called The Scribner Treasury: 22 Classic Tales published in 1953. The Scribner collection actually has a little biographical information.
"Among that talented group of magazine-fiction writers who live the years 1914-1929 a special brilliance in the annals of American letters, there was no better story-teller than Lardner and none whose darts of satire struck deeper into the rhinoceros hide of a generation complacently devoted to mammon (otherwise known to people like me who had to look this word up--greed)."
"Up to the time of the publication of How to Write Short Stories (1924), his reputation had been that of a sports-writer with a difference--a man with the gift of vivid language, an ear for the turns of common speech, and a refreshingly humorous approach to such ancient American sanctities as the game of baseball."
From the two stories I've read this weekend I see that his work is satirical and ironical and at times really pretty funny. I wonder if other readers might think his writing is "dated"? Not the actual writing style but the dialogue perhaps, or the characterizations? I had heard of Lardner before, but this was my first opportunity to read him. He captures the feel and flavor of the era as well as conveys the speech and colloquialisms of those years. Both stories are from the 1920s.
"Liberty Hall" was published in Lardner's collection Round Up in 1924 and is narrated by the wife of a famous and successful music composer who is not allowed to be at his ease while on a short holiday. He loathes nothing more than being recognized and fawned over. And more often than not, or that is comfortable anyway, he and his wife are roped into doing things they would prefer not. Dinner tonight? No, not possible? Okay, tomorrow then. Or maybe next Tuesday or August 4 . . . No does not seem to be an acceptable answer to his fans.
"My husband is in Atlantic City, where they are trying out 'Dear Dora', the musical version of 'David Copperfield'. My husband wrote that score. He used to take me along for these out-of-town openings, but not anymore."
It's the reason for that 'not anymore' that the story is being told. The Drakes actually have an "emergency exit" for those times when they have agreed to lunch or drinks or dinner at someone's home and then discovered they are "caught" in an agonizing situation--gushing or irritating fans or over familiarity or awkwardness. Mr. Drake often uses a lost filling or a necessary rewrite comes up at the last minute or telegram calling him back to New York in order to get out of a social event that turns out to be excruciatingly annoying.
Mr. Drake seems easily (and often) annoyed, but it's hard to blame him really. They make an exception for the Thayers. They had seemed so normal at first. The couples just seemed to click. And yes, there was that invitation that could not be turned down. Dates compared and decided upon. A break is not a bad thing and the Thayers assure Mr. Drake he will get a proper rest--no work allowed. True to her word Mrs. Thayer keeps the Drakes, in particular Mr. Drake, from any semblance of an enjoyable long weekend. You've met her sort before--she is always right. No cream in your coffee, Mr. Drake? But surely this can't be true! You've never tasted my cream . . . When Mr. Drake asks to use their piano so he can jot down a tune going through his head she is sure he is simply trying to repay her many kindnesses by giving her the pleasure of playing for her. No, no, you really mustn't--please just rest and keep away from that piano!
"If only we could have spent all our time in the guest-room. It would have been ideal."
It was "painful" (though highly amusing) to read about the Thayers' sort of hospitality!
In "The Golden Honeymoon" from the Scribner collection, yet more satirizing of a very long marriage (fifty years together) celebrated by taking a second honeymoon trip to beautiful, sunny Florida. Curiously the story first appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1922 (I wonder what Cosmo readers would think of it now!). What are the chances that "Mother's" old beau and his wife would happen to be staying at the same hotel! This story is narrated by the husband ("Mother" threw me off--I really did think he was writing about his mother at first until I realized "Mother" is his wife).
It's an interesting portrait of a long marriage. You get a sense of class and culture by the language used in the narration of the story. Although I liked the first story a tad more, I found this second one just as amusing and it elicited more than one out-loud guffaw from my own lips. The husband is an interesting observer of the foibles of those around him. The two sets of couples are into their seventies, long accustomed to each other yet their interaction is most illuminating--there are a few "what ifs . . .", of the sort you come across from pairs who have a very long-standing relationship.
To give you a flavor of the writing style--and I could so well imagine the old gentleman saying this--the two couples had been playing cards together (keeping in mind they are vacationing in Florida):
"After the game she brought out a dish of oranges and we had to pretend it was just what we wanted, though oranges down there is like a young man's whiskers; you enjoy them at first, but they get to be a pesky nuisance."
There is a bit of a competitiveness going on between the two pairs--particularly the men seeing as one had formerly been betrothed to the other's wife. Card games and checkers and even pitching horseshoes. And the insults fly fast and furious--well, sort of furious anyway.
"'Well, checkers ain't much of a game now anyway, is it?' she [Mrs. Hartsell, the wife of the former beau] said: 'It's more of a children's game, ain't it? At least, I know my boy's children used to play it a good deal.'
'Yes, ma'am', I said. 'It's a child's game the way your husband plays it, too'."
Ring Lardner is pretty darn amusing and a good find. I am not much into sports so sports writing would never be much of a draw for me, but I will happily pick up another short story by Ring Lardner. If you are looking for something light and amusing but a story written with a wry eye, do check him out. I wonder who I should read next. So many wonderful possibilities in my collections . . . I have a whole stack of them sitting by my bed even as I type.