Ring Lardner was one of the master stylists of American letters, and at least two of his sons became famous writers as well. So why does the story told by one of these sons about his famous family come off so flat?
Ring Lardner Jr.'s memoir was published in 1976, a decade and a half after the death of his mother and his last surviving brother. Ring Jr. tells of his parents' courtship, his father's struggle to establish himself as a newspaperman, his later fame, his drinking, and his loss of health. The story then moves onto the four sons, none of whom led dull lives. Two were killed in combat. Ring Jr. himself was famously blacklisted for Communist sympathies as a member of the Hollywood Ten.
The star of the book is Ring Sr., though his son writes of him with curious disengagement. "He was a strait-laced cynic", Ring Jr. declares. Though he describes an affectionate household, it's not a convincing presentation. Much of the narrative is taken up by lenghty samplings of the father's correspondence and articles written by or about him. When Ring Jr. does offer personal observations, they tend to be short and rather brusque, more to corroborate third-party commentaries then get at some deeper truth.
The critical take on Ring Lardner Sr., which the son takes some fey stabs at batting down, is that he was a sour-minded writer of uncommon brilliance who could have done much more than he did. Too much of his focus was on sports; too many of his great short stories were first-person narratives. "Ring got less percentage of himself on paper than any other American author of the first flight", wrote his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald after Ring's death.
Lardner could have done more with his life, but he's hardly the only one that can be said of. What stands today is his legacy of fine prose, most especially a stack of short stories that stand up against the best of Fitzgerald or any other American writer. One takeaway from "The Lardners" is how casually and powerfully funny the man was. Lying on what would be his deathbed, he wrote Ring Jr. when the latter was laid up with some broken bones: "I don't intend to allow a son of mine to show me up. If you can live in a hospital, so can I."
One has to have a certain amount of logical coolness as well as humor to write like that. Alas, the sons inherited the coolness more than the humor. Ring Jr.'s curiously stodgy style sinks many anecdotes. About his second marriage, to his brother David's widow, he writes: "(W)hile we both felt free to pursue our own affairs, and did, an understanding gradually developed that we might find enough in common after a suitable interval to put our futures together."
There's good moments to be had for fans of Lardner Sr., mostly in the correspondence excerpts and also an occasional stray comment. For example, the heart-twisting protagonist of the classic short story, "I Can't Breathe", was apparently modeled on a family friend, Grantland Rice's daughter, who would later add one of Ring's sons to her web of victims. But an overall feeling of ennui permeates the narrative, buttressed by an abrupt endnote where Ring Jr. notes that the book wasn't his idea but he felt he was the only person left to write it.
Was the Lardner family so soulless as that? Or did time and tragedy make looking back too painful? Whatever the case, "The Lardners" is curiously joyless, only passably informative despite the richness of its subjects.
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