Ring Lardner: Alibi Ike

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My second baseball story in a row (and it’s also my final one for this year) is Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike”.  In this case, as in last week’s “The Manager of Madden’s Hill”, the story is more than simply a baseball game.   The title character, Ike, is the focus of what seems to be a letter from the narrator to a friend.  All we know about the narrator is that he plays on the same professional baseball team as Ike.  We really don’t know anything about the recipient of the letter.

Ike earns his nickname because of his continuously making excuses for his behavior.  If he does something wrong, there’s a reason why.  If he does something well, there’s a reason he could have done better.  Whether baseball, card playing or women, Ike is unable to admit to situations as they really are.  His teammates understand this and inadvertently cause some “girl problems” for Ike.

The story has a down-home aspect that might be considered endearing.  I say “might be” because I’m not sure.  A little of this type of story would go a long way for me.  It’s written with the dialect of an uneducated baseball player which was tolerable but could have been irritating if the story continued longer than it did.  I almost want to say that the comedy of the story is old-fashioned; however, I think good comedy is timeless.  Good or not, timeless or not, the comedy in “Alibi Ike” is what I would consider a simpler, more straight-forward humor, such as the following conversation:

Well, Smitty went out and they wasn’t no more argument till they come in for the next innin’. Then Cap opened it up.

“You fellas better get your signs straight,” he says.

“Do you mean me? ” says Smitty.

“Yes,” Cap says. “What’s your sign with Ike?”

“Slidin’ my left hand up to the end o’ the bat and back,” says Smitty.

“Do you hear that, Ike?” ast Cap.

“What of it?” says Ike.

“You says his sign was pickin’ up dirt and he says it’s slidin’ his hand. Which is right?”

“I’m right,” says Smitty. “But if you’re arguin’ about him goin’ last innin’, I didn’t give him no sign.”

“You pulled your cap down with your right hand, didn’t you? ” ast Ike.

“Well, s’pose I did,” says Smitty. “That don’t mean nothin’.

The story is worth reading but I would recommend Lardner’s non-baseball story “Haircut”, instead.  It has some of the same down-home humor (it takes place in a barber chair) along with depth of character and some disturbing aspects of human nature.  “Alibi Ike” is an interesting period piece about baseball and that’s fine with me – on occasion.

As this is week 51 of Deal Me In 2014, next week is the final week and I don’t have to do much guessing to say that I’ll be reading Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”.  This will be the first time I’ve read anything by Porter so I’m looking forward to it.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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.