My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’d had Jonathan Yardley’s Ring Lardner biography sitting on my shelf for some time — long enough that I hadn’t the slightest idea where I bought it. Powell’s old Lincoln Avenue store in Chicago? Oxford Too in Atlanta? The Strand?
I bring up the provenance because, had I known what a slog “Ring” would be, I would have just left it where I saw it.
It’s a shame, really. Few remember Lardner these days; his son, the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter (and Hollywood Ten member) Ring Lardner Jr., is better known. I first ran across Ring Sr. in baseball books, where authors would talk about his baseball-themed short stories — such as “You Know Me Al” — with a sense of awe. He was one of the leading — and best-paid — authors of the 1920s, good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, pen pal to Maxwell Perkins, friend to the Algonquin Round Table and resident of tony Great Neck, N.Y.
He was also a character in the Black Sox saga, sitting in the press box and making note of questionable plays. In the film “Eight Men Out,” he’s played by John Sayles, who’s a dead ringer for the writer. (Pardon the pun.)
So I was expecting to find something boisterous, charming and a little sour, perhaps a character somewhere between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, in Yardley’s biography. Instead, what I got was a rather dull fellow whose writing, particularly the dialect-flavored pieces with deliberate misspellings, is at best a time capsule of early-20th century America. It hasn’t aged well.
It doesn’t help that Yardley, formerly the longtime lead book critic of the Washington Post, doesn’t really get inside Lardner’s head. The man was apparently a formidable drinker, something Yardley mentions frequently but doesn’t really try to explain. He was also a beloved father and husband, but again, there’s little warmth that comes off the pages. Even Lardner’s early days, before he married and became one of the leading voices of the ’20s, come across as kind of rote. (And there are all of two paragraphs on the 1919 World Series, an event that really shook Lardner; Eliot Asinof was far kinder to him in the book “Eight Men Out.”)
Equally sadly, Yardley’s frequent breaks for Lardner clips simply slow down the narrative. The whimsical verse and nonsense plays just don’t resonate today; you can see why Lardner, for all of his fame decades ago, has been relegated to the realm of minor author. (I can’t speak to his short stories, including “Haircut” and “The Golden Honeymoon.” They’re available online, but I haven’t felt the need to seek them out.)
Still, I think Lardner would be a more engaging subject in the hands of a different biographer. It’s ironic, since Yardley once won the Pulitzer for his criticism and was known for both making some careers and driving a stake through others, that he suffers from such restraint. Lardner may not have had Twain’s colorful life, but surely someone like Ron Powers (who wrote an amazing Twain biography a decade ago) could have placed him in context of his exciting times.
I’m giving the book three stars because it’s not really a one- or two-star book, which in my thinking is either poorly written or frustratingly offensive. “Ring” is neither, but the third star is granted grudgingly. “Ring” really belongs on a used bookstore’s shelves, where it can look thoughtful and a touch erudite. And perhaps it’s best if it stays there.