There was a time in my life when, if I had friends visiting me in Boston, I'd stop as we were walking down Boylston Street and point at this old hotel and say, "Ring Lardner used to stay there. Wrote a bunch of cool letters."
I gave up this pursuit, though, after one person too many said, "Ring Lardner? Who on Earth is Ring Lardner?"
Depressing, really. But now, thanks to a massive new collection from the Library of America, the Jazz Age author is getting another stint in the spotlight-which is absolutely what the greatest writer of baseball fiction, and a hero to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, deserves.
Lardner was a baseball beat reporter in the earliest days of the game, and he was also America's most popular humorist. Short fiction being the cash cow it was at the time (The Saturday Evening Post kept novelists solvent in a way their novels often did not), he came up with the profitable idea of combining America's national pastime with his knack for comedy--and in the process, he wrote his only novel, 1916's You Know Me Al, essentially by accident. Lardner himself thought so little of his fiction that book editors who wished to collect any of it in one place had to go around to the various magazines who had published his stories and ask to use their copies--but I believe You Know Me Al to be the finest piece of baseball fiction ever composed.
Lardner's idea was brilliantly simple, and it came with expansive narrative possibilities: Have a fictional "busher"--that is, a fringe Major League player--named Jack Keefe make the show as a pitcher for the White Sox, and have him send dispatches back home to his friend in Bedford, Indiana. The Saturday Evening post signed Lardner up for six epistolary stories in 1914, which then became chapters when they were collected to form You Know Me Al. Al was Al Blanchard, Jack's resolute friend.
The busher is what we might think of today as a meathead. He boasts about who he's going to beat up, who is due to get beaten up, and who deserves to get beaten up but is too old. Coaches and teammates exploit his ignorance with one clever in-joke after another, which Keefe reports back to the loyal Al, wholly oblivious to all the times he's made to be the butt of someone else's joke. He's hubristic, believing any problem he has on the mound can be solved simply by "cutting loose"--that is, going full-bore with what he regards as an untouchable fastball. Eventually, arrogance derails him; he gets sent to the minors, goes on a winning streak, comes back, redeems himself, and then--to the horror of the White Sox's management--stays in Chicago during the off-season and becomes "hog fat" on account of his developing alcoholism.
The drinks and jokes flow, but Lardner, like any master humorist, knew that comedy is best when there's some tragedy to bolster it (and vice versa). Where You Know Me Al really succeeds is with that duality. In one instance, suicide seems a possibility, and it becomes clear that the humor here is much more of the Samuel Beckett than the Amos 'n' Andy variety.
There's nothing sentimental, of course, about You Know Me Al. Lardner, who wrote sentences like "Shut up," he explained, didn't do sentimental. But it is a tear-inducer, and, in its best moments, you find yourself wondering if those tears are because you've just been laughing so hard, or if our man has come to some realization about himself, despite himself.
There are run-ins with women: three, exactly, one of whom becomes Keefe's wife. But before that:
I guess it is maybe a good thing it rained to-day because I dreamt about Violet last night and went out and got a couple of high balls before breakfast this morning. I hadn't drank nothing before breakfast before and it made me kind of sick. But I am all O.K. now.
The busher then settles down with a wife who doesn't want him, and he becomes a doting father to the point of making his newborn ill. Promises are made to return to Bedford, but the wife clearly wants no part of small town Middle America, and the letters to Al become peppered with unintentional swipes at Al's wife.
Intriguingly, even though we don't see anything written directly in Al's hand, he emerges as one of the great off-stage characters in early 20th-century literature. We feel Al's pain and perhaps his envy; his patience and his solidarity. This guy is a good friend--and probably more tolerant than you or I would be with a lug like Keefe as a buddy.
But perhaps Al's reason for not ditching the friendship comes down to a matter of need, the dominant theme throughout Lardner's one-off novel. A man frightened to be himself, to put himself out there as he is, needs a friend who understands as much and cultivates his own sense of self from being a good friend. Maybe that's what Al is up to in this small masterpiece of a novel. He's a counterpoint, a balance for Keefe. Every pitcher needs a batter, after all.
The meditative quality of baseball, underscored by its lack of a clock, offers opportunities for brooding and oft-accidental epiphanies, which was perfect both for Lardner and for the oafish Keefe. When critics praise You Know Me Al, though, they tend to focus on Lardner's virtuosic rendering of a baseball player's patois. Virginia Woolf, in a review, figured this must have taken forever for him to get right, even if what he was displaying was just a well-attuned ear conditioned over many years of clubhouse comings and goings. She held him up as the best prose writer in America, even if she maintained that his "language is not English."
There's a kind of class elitism in that notion, as though other critics believed Lardner to be slumming it, taking a field trip to places where proper literary talents shouldn't have been venturing. But this really was Lardner's world. As he rightly understood--and as You Know Me Al demonstrates--there was just as much art within "the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond," as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, as there was anywhere else.