Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ring Lardner--"Alibi Ike" (1915)

My concentration for reading and writing has been poor of late. Such ideas as do occur to me do not form themselves into any kind of proper order and relation to each other but all fight individually for the primacy as they come. In such periods I perceive literature to be as foreign and unnatural an activity to me as everything else is; this impression is magnified if I should come across any author whose work appears to be the natural, artistically unselfconscious product of a confident and energetic life. I am not certain whether Ring Lardner was good enough to qualify wholly as a writer of this type, but he was legitimately talented, and legitimately interesting, and these qualities supersede and inform the subject matter of his books rather than the opposite, which is one of the secrets of all really successful artistic endeavor, though it is achieved very rarely.

Lardner's authorial personality was representive of a type of up-and-coming man that was prominent in the national character in his time. These men were often from the midwest or elsewhere in the heartland, possessed little in the way of formal education or credentials, usually no college at all, but were nonetheless ambitious to make their way in the great world. They were not awed by cultural or political authority, though they were not radicals either. Even the lives of the members of this caste who went into writing and entertainment were closely bound with the mainstream currents of contemporary life--sports, trains, lunch counters, radio, mass circulation magazines. They also had a good understanding of humor, a sense of it if you will, at an elemental level. If we cannot quite think their actual jokes and burlesques terribly funny due to our dislocation in time we can appreciate the skill with which they set them up so as to make everything that follows proceed from the premise set forth by the joke. I am thinking here of people like W.C. Fields and especially Will Rogers, whose persona seems almost lifted straight from a Lardner story.

Much more than the Great writers of his time, whose works inevitably tend to insist to us that the essential world we live in is very much the same as theirs and all people's in all times, reading Lardner is to enter an America that rings absolutely true on its own terms, and which has also been more absolutely lost as far as anybody reading it in 2007 is concerned. The very publication with which Lardner is most closely identified, The Saturday Evening Post, is an excellent illustration of this. This magazine was one of the first, if not the first, of the big magazines to get put out of business by television, being essentially finished by the early 60s. If you have ever looked into an old issue, the impression is that it is a magazine written for people who are waiting for television to be invented. There is nothing surviving that is quite comparable to it; unlike The Paris Review or the old New Yorker, which many people affect at least to be nostalgic for and which such traditional culture magazines as do exist try to imitate the tone of to some degree, no one seriously interested in writing or publishing has any thought of reviving the spirit of the Post, though it was certainly popular enough in its day, and contributed more to the national literary and artistic canon than most consciously highbrow publications ever manage to do. The sensibility and ways of life, the mindsets it reflected, which the writings of Lardner capture so well, are largely dead to us, at least as a force in our actual lives. I think this estrangement, at least for thinking people, or those who would be thinking people, is a pity.

I did not make too many notes on the actual story. Relating to the point I made about humor earlier I broke down on the 15th page of this 22 page story and laughed. Each individual joke as it were was not especially funny but the absurd and relentless build-up got to me. From what I have read of Lardner this seems to have been a pet technique of his. He favors a folksy, 1st-person narrator with a taste for a little mischief now and then who is generally peripheral to the main story. The narrator casually tells the story in his folksy manner, not at all as a writerly sort but in the midst of work or other unscholarly activity of some kind, such as cutting hair or taking infield practice. Slowly but surely the story becomes weird or disturbing in some way. The narrator indeed seems to reveal himself to be nearly as odd or objectionable as the subject of his tale. This is all done very skillfully, without any appearance of strain either in the writing or the structure, and as such the story becomes believable enough to take on an independent existence--to become literature.

Lardner refers in the story to a number of real baseball players who were at the peak of their fame around 1911--Laughing Larry Doyle, Rube Marquard, "Chief" Meyers (he was an American Indian), Wally Schang. I noted that it was remarkable to me how vivid the personalities/abilities/statistics/careers of so many of these now very long-ago players still are. Knowing them mainly through the irresistible, if rosy-hued oral histories of baseball that came out in the 60s and 70s (The Glory of Their Times, Baseball When the Grass Was Real, and Baseball Between the Lines are the best ones) they have in my imagination an existence by virtue of belonging to the remote past and being only knowable through books more substantial, or at least more exciting, than I can conceive of any contemporary athlete's having. In my imagination professional baseball, along with journalism, writing, travel, the beach, musical concerts, parties, college, etc, were all way more fun, that life in general was more thrilling on a consistent basis, in 1911 than any of it is today. Rationally I know this is not true--and certainly I know that life was comparatively awful for much of the population compared to what it is now (my own family seemed to be living relatively well at that time from I know of them however; they had cars and played in golf tournaments, which I take to be indicators that they were not employed in sweat shops at least)--but it nonetheless colors my impressions of my experiences. Back to baseball though, these old days were the classic era of the game, when it was the most popular sport in the country, and was widely and skilfully played by adults and children who had not been selected for organized teams. The eight-team league, the schedule of all day games, smaller rosters, no pitch counts (they have these in little league now), fewer pitching changes and less microspecialization in general, train travel, central cities visibly inhabited by human beings engaged in human activities--all these elements combined have such a powerful appeal to the imagination, and we can never have them again, because the time for them is past. There is truly something a little maddening in this, is there not?

p.16--During a road trip to Boston: "The rest o` the time they was sight-seein` over to Cambridge and down to Revere and out to Brook-a-line and all the other places where the rubes go." I honestly have no idea what this sentence is referring to. People used to go sightseeing in Revere? There is a beach there I guess.

I have not seen the Alibi Ike film that we have the poster for above, though it should be pointed out to fans of this blog and its peculiar sensibility that this movie was the debut of Olivia de Havilland, who is one of my very favorite movie actresses of all time for good looks. She was exceptionally pretty, in that matter-of-factly 30s/40s style that I wish were a little more in vogue in our current age, though certainly there are still people who have it.

Ring Lardner was another midwesterner, born at 519 Bond Street in Niles, Michigan, about ten miles from South Bend, Indiana. The house still stands and is designated with a marker memorializing the event. His remains are at the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village (Queens), New York.


Beth said...

At one point Gammon was toying with the idea of having an author that is "his", like Wolfe is for Billy. His choice was Lardner.

There is a great restaurant/hotel in northern MN that was originally a private club for folks like Ring, Jack Dempsey, and Babe Ruth. We enjoy going there when in the area. http://www.naniboujou.com/

Bourgeois Surrender said...

Hey. I thank you for your comment. This kind of exchange of useful information is part of what I have been seeking. Northern Minnesota is not a place I have ever even managed to get near yet, but now, see, I feel like I have some purpose if I ever do get there, and purpose has always been a big stumbling block with me in my endeavors.