Thursday, August 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 128: Ring Lardner, Haircut (#184)

Ring Lardner, "Haircut" (1925) from Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings:

How has "Haircut" not been used as the basis for a Twin Peaks-/Top of the Lake-style show about a quirky town with a web of anger and hidden relationships? It's got all the requirements: it's a small town where a secret murder takes place. What more do we need?

"Haircut" also serves as example #1 in Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction for his discussion of irony and the "implied author." No, seriously: on page six, Booth brings up Lardner's "Haircut" and asks the central question, "How do we know that Lardner thinks practical joker Jim is a terrible person when the barber-narrator keeps telling us what a card he is and how he has a good heart?" In other words, how can we read into a story and see what the author really wants us to know?

Well, it's not exactly hard, is it? The barber-narrator talks--at length--about what a card Jim is and gives us some examples, including torturing his wife and children and fomenting strife among married couples. And even while the barber doesn't say anything bad about Jim, he provides plenty of evidence that the other people in town dislike Jim. So Jim's "jokes" annoy the sheriff and the townspeople and the kid who got hit on his head when he was young. Except for the barber and another joker in town, most of the people we see seem to understand that Jim is bad--even if some of the townsfolk go along with him in his mean jokes.

The real mystery of "Haircut" isn't "How does Lardner tell us the truth about Jim without judging him explicitly?" It's "How come these people haven't tried to teach him a lesson before this?" In Lardner's telling, Jim is a monster; but the entire town is somewhat complicit in his monstrousness.

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