Some nights I don’t feel like writing. I sit in the dark listening to the furnace and staring at the pale white of the open Word document, and I wonder if I’m ever going to write again. I always think of Jim Bouton in Ball Four, examining his own arm as if it’s a foreign object, trying to count the pitches left in it. How many words do I have left in me?
I’m guessing Ring Lardner probably felt much the same way.
Lardner died seventy-nine and a half years ago, and published his most famous novel ninety-nine years ago. His work rarely saw a second printing in his lifetime. He was close friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, met Hemingway but didn’t get along, drunkenly danced on a lawn to try to get Joseph Conrad’s attention. Mencken admired him, Woolf praised him. He’s mostly forgotten now, just like Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser and most of pre-war American writers, men and women who lived in too quiet a time.
Fitzgerald bemoaned this fact in his eulogy, “Ring”, in which he writes:
“During those [sports-writing] years, when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. … A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.”
Perhaps this is what caused the disquiet I felt as I read Lardner’s You Know Me Al on a flight to Arizona to meet my younger, more intelligent and far more focused colleagues. I read the book in two hours, after promising to put it down at the end of every chapter. It’s a comedy, in the sense that Don Quixote is a comedy: one in which we are meant to laugh at the main character, but find the target of the satire too universal, too personal to take any great pleasure out of it.
The book is about the trials of Jack Keefe, a young right-handed pitcher who sends letters back to his best friend Al back home in Bedford, Indiana. Keefe’s missives portray him as a brash, confident and thoughtless young man, unwilling to listen to the advice of his coaches and unable to devise a strategy with the cunning female gender. Keefe seems consistently on the edge of ruin, but his natural ability always seems to be just enough to compensate for his own self-destructive tendencies.
Like most comedians, Lardner’s humor is tinged with bitterness. His depiction of city life as the center of corruption went against the Main Street theme of his generation, and would have made Thoreau proud. And his depiction of Keefe is a blatant lampoon of America as a nation: headstrong, virile, and pathetic. It’s a renunciation of the very things that Lardner’s supporters have praised him for: unthinking vivacity, lack of pretention or reflection. Keefe never thinks before he acts, which is fine; he also never thinks afterwards, never learns.
Everything bad that happens to him is luck, everything good a result of his skill and cunning. It’s a depressing concept: is that what we’re all like? Are we all, ultimately, to blame for not being able to see far enough ahead, and attribute such things as beyond our control? Are we all heading around blind corners when it’s really just our eyes that are shut?
I’m thirty-four now, and chances are pretty good that I’ll never write a novel. After all, I’m lazy as all hell, and I never stick to anything. Before I turned to baseball, in fact, I never wrote much at all: just first pages to plotless short stories, written on legal pads during lunch breaks. Maybe Frank Chance’s diamond, snug as it is, fit me well.
But even Lardner couldn’t resist one piece of optimism. In a book teeming with hubris, with every opportunity of falling into the easy moral, Jack Keefe’s arm never does give out. Keefe’s final letter tells of his heading overseas with baseball’s All-Stars, a champion and a success. Sometimes, maybe, we thrive despite ourselves.
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