Writer, researcher, translator, critic

You Know Me Al


Ring Lardner, You Know Me Al [New York; 1916]

The crowning achievement of a particular, if minor, line in early-twentieth-century U.S. letters: the "epistolary slang" novel. Originating in the rowdy New York dailies of the 1890s (alongside the early comic strips) with such forgotten non-luminaries as Henry M. Blossom and Edward W. Townsend, the epistolary slang genre was generally a way to wring cheap laughs out of feigned illiteracy, often mocking Irish or other underclass dialects.

Lardner's oaf, Jack Keefe (though I don't believe his last name ever turns up in the text), is of no particular ethnicity, just regular old American Blockhead, the sort of egotistical, boastful, ignorant, argumentative, gluttonous, self-justifying, and thoroughly naive numbskull for whom the word Dipshit would later be coined as the only entirely fitting epithet.

Among much else, the book is a high-wire act in unreliable narration; since the only version of events we see is whatever Jack will think makes him look good to his friend Al (who we never hear from but must have the patience of Job), part of the humor is piecing together, between Jack's laying blame on everyone but himself and boasting about how he came the best out of every encounter, what actually happened. (Usually, it's that he was defrauded but either refuses to acknowledge it or is simply too dumb to notice.) It can be a bit exhausting, especially since the incredible prose style with which Lardner has chosen to represent his bush-leaguer is so sparingly punctuated. A sample:

That was the only hit they got off me and they ought to of been ashamed to of tooken that one. But Gleason don't appresiate my work and him and I allmost come to blows at supper. I was pretty hungry and I ordered some stake and some eggs and some pie and some ice cream and some coffee and a glass of milk but Gleason would not let me have the pie or the milk and would not let me eat more than ½ the stake. And it is a wonder I did not bust him and tell him to mind his own business. I says What right have you got to tell me what to eat? And he says You don't need nobody to tell you what to eat you need somebody to keep you from floundering yourself.

Virginia Woolf was an admirer of Lardner's prose, calling him the first great American writer to write entirely for Americans and not care whether the English read or even understood his work. Typical of her provincial attitude, of course, although I have no idea what someone who doesn't know baseball would make of this book. I couldn't imagine hacking my way through the equivalent about a cricketer.

August 2, 2018