Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner


by Jonathan Yardley
Random House, $12.95
Ring Lardner was one of those writers who seemed to fight the efforts of his readers to take him seriously. Not many of them did, of course, but his short stories nonetheless provoked enthusiasm from such disparate and demanding critics as Virginia Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and H. L. Mencken. What his admirers found in Lardner’s outpouring of tales, skits, poems, and articles was a sharp ear for the muddled language of disingenuous moralism, a sometimes resentful sense of class differences, and the instincts of a born story-teller. Lardner’s high regard for life’s bottled pleasures, his affection for family, and his mastery of the non sequitur no doubt broadened his appeal.
Lardner got his start as a sports reporter for several newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, which hired him during the winter of 1908. By the time he left the Tribune in 1919, he had become one of America’s bestknown sports writers and had also begun to carve out for himself a career as lyricist, short story writer, and allpurpose raconteur. He moved east, wrote steadily for Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and eventually even The New Yorker. By 1925, Lardner was making more than $100,000 a year. But he was also drinking heavily and encountering a variety of other health problems. By 1933, at the age of forty-eight, Ring Lardner was dead. He left behind several collections of short stories and other random writing, not all of it very good or even memorable. For all the outpouring of journalism and whimsy during his peak period of productivity, Lardner’s stake in American letters lies in a handful of short stories and a comic style that just barely succeeds in rising above the burlesque.
Jonathan Yardley tells the story of Lardner’s life with affection, respect, and an appropriately boyish pleasure in the decency and consistency he found there.