::Literate Blather::
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Literary Criticism: Ring Lardner's "Haircut"

Summary:  Whitey, a small town barber, trims the hair of a newcomer to town.  He starts blathering away about the townspeople.  Finally, Whitey settles on telling the story about the death of Jim Kendall and how his demise has been unfortunate for everyone in town.   The more the barber talks the character of Jim Kendall slowly begins to reveal itself.  Kendall was a callous bully who drank took much, cheated on his wife, and eventually began to stalk and harass one of the local women, Julie Gregg.  Whitey seems unaware of Kendall’s substantial flaws often dismissing his questionable actions with “He certainly was a card!”  Kendall crosses Doc Stairs, a newcomer to town, who fancies Julie.   The doctor also befriends a mentally handicapped young man named Paul, who is often the butt of Kendall’s vicious pranks.  Kendall and Paul go duck hunting together and to protect Julie and the doctor from Kendall, he shoots Kendall and calls it an accident.  The story ends with Whitey saying it was unfortunate and Kendall probably got what he deserved for bring a half-wit hunting with him. 

Analysis:  Ring Lardner was Ernest Hemingway before Ernest Hemingway.  In fact, a young Hemingway wrote sport stories for his high school newspaper under the pseudonym of “Ring Lardner Jr.”

Lardner was also a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

While a great influence on the writers of the Lost Generation, Lardner remains on the fringes of literary fame – unable to shake the label of newspaperman (and even worse – sports columnist).  But his satirical short stories pack a lot of wallop and “Haircut” is one of his best.

“Haircut,” published in 1925, is written as a rambling monologue by Whitey, the town barber.  It’s a classic small town story where friends who grew up together become blind to each other’s flaws – and in the case of Jim Kendall the flaws are enormous.  In fact, Kendall is a deeply disturbed man: angry, vindictive, self-centered, and prone to cruelty.

The beauty of “Haircut” is that the reader starts out on the side of Whitey and settles in to listen to a story about a poor man and his death.  We believe Whitey when he tells us that Kendall’s death has been a blow to the small town.

“I bet they was more laughin’ done here than any town its size in America.  Jim was comical, and Hod was pretty near his match for him.  Since Jim’s gone, Hod tries to hold his end up  just the same as ever, but it’s tough goin’ when you ain’t got nobody to kind of work with.  They used to be plenty of fun in here Saturdays.”

But as Whitey continues to blather, the character of Kendall unravels and it begins to dawn on the reader that Kendall is anything but a nice man.  In fact, he’s quite the opposite.

Kendall is a salesman and when he travels on the train and passes through a town he writes down the names of the storeowners.  So if he sees “Henry Smith, Dry Goods” he jots it down.  Then he writes Henry Smith a postcard that says: “Ask you Missus who kept from gettin’ lonesome the last time you was in Carterville” and then signs it “A Friend.”

Even worse, as Whitey tells this reprehensible story – he dismisses it as a joke.

Next, we discover that Kendall has been fired from his job and begins working odd jobs around town.  His wife tries to prevent Kendall from spending the money on gin and approaches his bosses about sending her his checks.  Angered by her tactics, Kendall invites his wife and children to a traveling circus.  He asks them to meet him outside the tent, but instead he goes to a pool hall and gets drunk.

When the new doctor, Doc Stairs, sees the distraught Mrs. Kendall, at the circus he buys her and the children tickets.  This, of course, doesn’t sit well with Kendall.

When Doc Stairs and Julie Gregg fall for each other, Kendall decides to move in.  He pursues Julie with a frightening passion – on one occasion attacking her instead her home and nearly raping her.  He flees before the police can arrive.

These horrible actions are told almost off-hand by the ignorant Whitey – easily dismissed as pranks by Kendall.  The reader begins to dislike the barber – the foolish enabler of such actions – as much as Kendall.

Kendall eventually gets his comeuppance when the town half-wit, Paul, decides to take the law into his own hands.  Often the butt of Kendall’s vicious pranks, Paul can’t sit idly by while Kendall attacks his friends Doc Stairs and Julie Gregg.  So he offers to go hunting with Kendall and “accidentally” shoots him.

Whitey remains clueless that Kendall was murdered and not killed by accident.  But the reader is blissful aware.

Whitey, however, misses his old friend.

“But still we miss him round here.  He certainly was a cad!”


(Ring Lardner photo from blacksoxfan.com)

Labels: , ,

Stumble Upon Toolbar StumbleUpon | Digg! Digg | del.icio.us | Reddit | Technorati Technorati | E-mail a Link E-mail
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
Blogger Bybee said...
I think Lardner was one of Maxwell Perkins' authors. If I'm remembering correctly, Perkins had to do a lot of hand-holding to get Lardner to produce. Thanks for talking about "Haircut". I really love discussion of early 20 c. American lit.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Thanks Bybee. You are indeed remembering correctly. Lardner was a Perkin's writer.

Anonymous Buy Viagra online said...
This is really interesting I had read something related to this man so I didn't know Kendall was a callous bully who drank took much.

Anonymous Detroit Tourism said...
Hello, My friend! Congratulations on having one of the most sophisticated blogs I've come across in some time! It's just incredible how much you can take away from something simply because of how visually beautiful it is. You've put together a great blog space. This is definitely a must-see blog! Thank you so much for posting this.

Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
A readable and thoughtful review. There is an unfortunate typo in the review: the strory ends "He certainly was a card". Substituting "cad" completely changes the tone.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
The Template is generated via PsycHo and is Licensed.