In the heady years of the Jazz Age, Ring Lardner was America’s favorite humorist, a prodigally talented improviser equally admired by a popular audience and by literary friends such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson. Like Mark Twain before him and James Thurber after, he was a master of many forms and moods, his literary signatures being a virtuoso, surrealistic tomfoolery that looks forward to S. J. Perelman and a dark edginess that feels contemporary.
Now, The Library of America and editor Ian Frazier celebrate his achievement with a major collection of Lardner’s most enduring work. Here, in one volume for the first time, are the finest stories, the full texts of You Know Me Al, The Big Town, and the long out-of-print The Real Dope, and a generous sampling of humor pieces, sports reporting, song lyrics, surrealist playlets, and letters.
Lardner began as a Chicago-based sports writer, and it was in the jargon of ball players that he wrote You Know Me Al (1916), the best-selling work that launched his literary career and earned the admiration of writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and H. L. Mencken. Comprising the unvarnished letters of its comically self-admiring hero, bush-leaguer turned big-leaguer Jack Keefe, You Know Me Al’s brilliant burlesque of the egotism of sports stardom remains as fresh as ever. Lardner’s unrivaled ear for the rhythms and hilarious oddities of the American language as actually spoken was matched by a rare gift for inspired nonsense, whether he was writing a travel narrative from the vantage point of a four-year-old (The Young Immigrunts), a play set in “the Outskirts of a Parchesi Board,” or the story of Red Riding Hood “like I tell it to my little ones when they wake up in the morning with a headache after a tough night.”
Lardner could find something to laugh about in the tiniest circumstance, but all the laughter could not mask the sardonic view he often took of the lives he described. Sharp and dispassionately observant of the American scene, his best stories (among them such masterpieces as “The Golden Honeymoon,” “Haircut,” “The Love Nest,” “A Day with Conrad Green,” and “Who Dealt?”) cast a devastating eye on the hypocrisies and prejudices of everyday life. His garrulous narrators, blissfully devoid of self-knowledge, are given just enough room to reveal themselves in all their petty scheming and unacknowledged resentment.
Equal parts antic and acerbic, here is a body of writing that Mencken called a “mine of authentic Americana.” (Lardner’s play June Moon, which he co-authored with George S. Kaufman, is collected in George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies.)
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