Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”

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The brilliance of Ring Lardner’s short story, “Haircut”, sneaks up on the reader.  At first glance, it seems like a nice little story about small-town America circa 1925.  The entire narrative is told by the town’s barber, Whitey, as he gives a haircut to one of his customers.  I couldn’t help but think of Floyd the Barber in The Andy Griffith Show.

Whitey gossips some about the townspeople to his customer, whom I get the impression is not a regular.  While characters typical of the place and time pop in and out of Whitey’s tale, his focus always comes back to Jim Kendall whom he describes frequently as “what a card”.  Jim’s a funny guy, a practical joker, a little wild and slowly but surely, the reader figures out that Jim is – in a word – mean.  Whitey essentially treats Jim lightheartedly and laughs off his cruelty.  The reader could almost put themselves in the place of the customer, who is never heard from throughout the story but can’t help but be known and can’t help but understand the real Jim behind the barber’s tale.

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Eventually, Whitey gets around to a young kid named Paul, who Jim dubs a “cuckoo”.   Whitey’s understanding of what happens between Jim and Paul is predictably naïve, but the customer, or rather the reader, picks up on the fact that Jim underestimates Paul.  While Jim’s character gives the story a disturbing effect, I think the barber’s casual acceptance or his “that’s just the way it is” attitude makes “Haircut” truly chilling.

This is the first story I’ve read by Ring Lardner.  A tale told by a barber could have easily been just a gimmick, but Lardner turns it into something both sinister and thought-provoking.  This story ranks up there with the best of Twain or O. Henry.  I’m looking forward to reading more of Lardner’s work.

The only thing that disappointed me is that when I originally picked the story for my Deal Me In list, I thought it would be about baseball.

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A Branch of the Service by Graham Greene

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This week I drew the Nine of Spades which corresponds to Graham Greene’s short story, “A Branch of the Service”, on my list for my Deal Me In 2014 project.  I’ve come to the conclusion that a short story can be an excellent format for comedy and humor.  Perhaps the brevity of a short story can keep humor from getting too “old”.

“A Branch of the Service”, in addition to being a short story, uses another format for comedy.  Sometimes joining two elements that one might not think of together can be ripe for a good laugh.  In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut has a couple of stories where his narrator is a storm window repairman for the rich and the famous such as the Kennedys and the Hiltons.  They are brilliantly funny, as is this story by Graham Greene.

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The unusual pairing in this story is a Restaurant and Food Critic who doubles as a spy for the British Government.  Or is he a spy for the British Government who doubles as a Restaurant and Food Critic?  The two are blended together so perfectly that it doesn’t really matter.  The agency for which the narrator works originally was named International Reliable Restaurants Association but this had to be changed due to “Irish difficulties” (IRRA) with the new name being International Guide to Good Restaurants (IGGR).

Through the course of the story, the narrator, with wonderful British sarcasm and dry wit, tells the tales of two of his spy/restaurant encounters.  In the first tale, he makes a name for himself by nabbing a secret document in a manner that would make James Bond proud.  For the second tale, he’s not quite as successful as a risk of being a spy/restaurant critic is eating something that doesn’t quite agree with you.  The narrator graciously spares the reader the “unsavory details” but he makes his point.

It’s a little too early to really start thinking about a favorite short story for the year, but as far as funniest, this is the one to beat.

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The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

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I chose the Nine of Diamonds this week which meant I read Mark Twain’s short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”.  It was typical Twain humor, satire and sarcasm as he started the story explaining how the honesty of Hadleyburg was known around the country:

It was many years ago.  Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region around about.  It had kept that reputation unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions.

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Underneath all of the pleasantries in describing this Edenistic little town, Twain puts a little tongue-in-cheek attitude toward its so-called honesty.  He seems to say “Nobody can really be this honest”.  And just as the reader might suspect, a stranger finds his way into Hadleyburg and is offended.  In an attempt to avenge himself, the stranger constructs an elaborate scheme to expose the true colors of Hadleyburg’s finest.  It includes money.  Throw a little money in the works and honesty doesn’t look so inviting – or so Twain seems to say.

The complexity of the scheme is probably what makes the entire story so humorous.  I laughed continuously as eighteen of the most prominent families of Hadleyburg were exposed to the general public.  The reaction of the public kept me laughing even more.   It seems like Twain put himself in the taunts and mocking of the public as they realized how Hadleyburg’s honesty only went so deep.

I know this is only the third story I’ve read in my Deal Me In 2014 project, but its my favorite so far.

Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

I’ve come to the conclusion that the internet isn’t the best place to have conversations, discussions, debates or even, let’s face it, arguments about religion or politics.  Don’t get me wrong, I have read some very well-articulated and well-thought out opinions on these topics from varying points of view.  I think the perceived anonymity of the internet, though, takes away the ability or at least makes it more difficult to actually have an exchange of ideas on these topics.

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Personally, one of the better places for me to talk about these topics is a pub or coffeehouse similar to how C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and the rest of their group (The Inklings) did it.  They talked about literature and religion – I’m sure politics entered into the conversations from time to time.

That brings me to the book I just finished, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.  In spite of the slightly gruff title, I felt like I was actually sitting at a table with the author discussing his thoughts and ideas.  The premise of his book is to show how the face of much of American Christianity is actually heresy when compared to orthodox (with a small “o”) Christianity.  Douthat is considered a “conservative voice” for the New York Times.  I have a feeling based on his book and knowing his position that he is used to people disagreeing with him.  This seems to have given him good practice in holding his ground on his opinions but also an intelligent understanding of those who disagree with him.  I think both of those abilities shine in his book.

Since I’m not currently at a pub or coffeehouse, I’ll finish with simply saying Douthat’s book is worth discussing with people of all political persuasions.  Just about everyone will find something with which to disagree, but everyone will also find something challenging and worth pondering.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the mysteries of faith and the complexities of politics and how they have intertwined over the last few decades.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Powder-Blue Dragon

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One of my most enjoyable reading experiences since I’ve been blogging has been slowly reading through the short stories in Kurt Vonnegut’s collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  I’ve also read his collection Welcome to the Monkey House.  Vonnegut is at his best when he combines social commentary with his biting wit.  Some of the stories from Bagombo that fall into this category are “2BR02B” and “The Package”.  I have also been pleasantly surprised by some of his stories that may not be strong on social commentary but somehow are just brilliantly amusing such as “Ambitious Sophomore” where I first encountered Vonnegut’s recurring and very likeable Lincoln High band leader, George Helmholtz.

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Unfortunately, his story “The Powder-Blue Dragon” just didn’t fall into any of the above categories.  I think part of my problem with it comes from the plot line that just didn’t go where I thought it would or where I thought it should.  Kiah Higgins, a young kid, works a number of odd jobs and manages to save up enough to buy an expensive sports car – the powder-blue dragon mentioned in the title.  Many of the people he encounters after his vehicle purchase are quite surprised that he was able to buy the car.  This part of the premise I thought was great.  The surprise and bewilderment from people who are shocked that a kid could work enough to buy an expensive car could have made for a ton of laughs.  It also would have been fun to have put myself in the place of the kid (just a reminder, this is fiction).

Once Kiah buys the car; however, none  of what I thought would happen does.  It was a bigger disappointment than I was expecting.  But I will continue with the stories in Bagombo as this is the first disappointment of this sort that I’ve encountered.  Vonnegut’s still brilliant in my book.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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…I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it…

One could very easily and correctly refer to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, as dystopian.  But where other dystopian novels focus on the dystopia, Ishiguro’s novel uses the dystopia as a backdrop for a powerful human story and focuses on three characters, their childhood and coming of age.

The environment in which Ruth, Kathy and Tommy grow up is not as everything appears both to them and the reader.  The reader only knows what Kathy, the narrator, knows and discovers throughout the novel.  It’s difficult to write about the novel without spoilers; however, my preference is to do that because, for me, the novel was much more than simply how society might possibly go or have already gone awry.  It’s also much more than having answers revealed to the questions the children have as they grow up.   There is more depth to the story than just a warning as to where the world is headed that is usually embedded somewhere in dystopian novels.  One aspect of the novel that differentiates it from the plethora of other novels of this type is that the setting is around the early 1980’s as opposed to the future – giving me the idea that a warning isn’t the top priority for Ishiguro.

As a narrator, Kathy is emotionally guarded, both with her friends and the reader, but this makes her one of the more intriguing narrators I’ve experienced in a while.  Her feelings and inner thoughts are exposed a little at a time making me suddenly realize how much I care about this character and her friends.  In her reflections of her childhood, there is a sadness that doesn’t just come from the dystopian backdrop.  For me, it was a sadness that many reflective people might have in looking back at a childhood regardless of whether it was a happy one or not.  Her memories become the plot; however, they never cease being memories.

Saki’s “The Recessional”

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For my first short story in my Deal Me In: 2014 project, I picked the Ace of Diamonds which corresponds to Saki’s short story, “The Recessional”.

According to Wikipedia, Saki is the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro, a British author who lived and wrote around the turn of the Twentieth Century.  Wikipedia also mentioned that Rudyard Kipling (among others) influenced Saki’s writing and I would add that “The Recessional” shows the Kipling influence in a big way.

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Clovis Sangrail is the author of the poem referenced in the story’s title.  The bulk of the story consists of some rather humorous critique of the poem by Bertie van Tahn.  The names of the two characters are Kipling-esque as well as the poem itself: much ado about elephants and the Himalayas.  I enjoyed the witty banter between Bertie and Clovis but that’s the extent of the story.  No real resolution occurs.

This may not be my favorite story but I would be willing to give Saki another try.  In my research, I realized that he wrote a story called “The Interlopers”.  I have a vague recollection of reading this story when I was in sixth grade.  If my memory serves me right, “The Interlopers” has a Jack London feel to it along with a surprise ending – which could warrant a re-read in the near future.