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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8 responses to “Ring Lardner’s “Haircut”

  1. Pingback: Deal Me In 2014: Week 5 Wrap-Up | Bibliophilopolis

  2. Your post makes me want to read this story; the device of using the barber to tell the tale sounds like a fresh approach for me. He did you decide on including Lardner to your 2014 roster?

    • jay, I wanted to include some baseball stories and I knew Ring Lardner wrote a lot about baseball. Haircut wasn’t one of them apparently, but I’m glad I picked it. During my research, it seemed like this is one of his more well-known and well-thought of stories.
      -Dale

  3. I think I may have read this story in high school. It sounds very familiar and I can’t imagine there are too many other stories like it. I must say, I’m intrigued by the thought of baseball stories.

  4. “I think the barber’s casual acceptance or his “that’s just the way it is” attitude makes “Haircut” truly chilling.”

    I read this story a while ago and still remember this well. For every cruel person, there are dozens more willing to just accept things as they are, laugh along with the ‘jokes’ even if they wouldn’t do such things themselves. Evil then persists unchecked.

    I didn’t yet look at your short story list, but I hope among baseball-themed stories you’ll read John Cheever’s “The National Pastime” (if you haven’t already); it’s a good one, blending baseball with a dysfunctional father-son relationship.

    • The more I think about Haircut, the more I like it. I like the way you put it: “Evil…persists unchecked.”

      Thanks for the Cheever recommendation – it sounds great! I’m going to find it and read it soon, even though it’s not on my list. I’ve found it difficult to find baseball fiction – especially short stories.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      -Dale

  5. Pingback: Ring Lardner: Alibi Ike | Mirror with Clouds

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