The Lardners: My Family Remembered
The Story of a Wonder Man
In The Lardners we look—to use a phrase of John Ford’s—not upon the ruins of a man but upon the ruins of those ruins. Ring Lardner’s third and only living son has written a book which means to be sweet but in fact is maddeningly without any flavor at all. It may wish to seem restrained, but it is merely unstated. There is a family here, but it has neither cohesion nor the lack of it. Subjects are raised as if in a spirit of candor, but nothing is ever said, connected, explored, settled. Much seems to happen, but only seldom does anything happen to anyone. Though Lardner, Jr. seems innocent of the possibility, his family reminiscence is eloquent testimony to the way his father struck him dumb.
For instance, the crucial fact about the Lardners as we see them here is Ring Lardner’s alcoholism. It played a major role in shaping his career, in defining the terms of his marriage, in shortening his life; one presumes it had a strong effect on his sons as well. Yet we never once look upon the ruin it caused, only on the ruins of those ruins as the subject is “discussed” with dispassionateness and kindness and then evaded, so its consequences lie all around without ever being recognized. Throughout the parts of the book that concern Lardner’s career as a sports-writer and his courtship of Ellis Abbott we have hints that Lardner drank a good deal as early as his early twenties. But when, how, or why it all began is never mentioned, and it is only much later that Lardner, Jr. will go so far as to say, “He was the kind of drinker for whom the drug was a problem almost from the start.”
The son seems to have picked up the habit, not of drinking but of evasive mentioning, from his father. In a late sketch, recently reprinted in Some Champions, Lardner, writes about getting hired in Chicago in 1907: ” ‘Have you figured out how you’re going to live in Chicago on eighteen-fifty?’ asked Duke. ‘I can get on the wagon.’ ” So drinking had become an expensive habit while Lardner was working in South Bend before he was twenty-two. In another sketch Lardner describes going off on a toot in which he ran up a cab fare of over $130 after he had messed up the layout of three stories of a prize fight that came in over the wire. But we can go back over Lardner, Jr.’s pages about his father’s early life, to say nothing of the pages on the same years in Lardner’s own autobiographical The Story of a Wonder Man, without ever getting a clue to what happened, or why. All the son wants to say is that after a certain point his father did not drink because he was morbid or depressed but was morbid or depressed because he drank. Which is to tell …