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.