Back Ring Lardner, “Quick Returns”

Ring Lardner (1885–1933)
From Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings

“‘Listen!’ I said. ‘What did them two girdles cost?’” Illustration by American artist May Wilson Preston (1873–1949), drawn for “Quick Returns” when it appeared in March 27, 1920, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Preston illustrated most of Lardner’s stories in the Post.

A century ago this month, Ring Lardner published the first story in what would become a series collected as The Big Town—the closest he came to writing an actual novel.

There was no hint, when The Saturday Evening Post published “Quick Returns,” that Lardner would develop the story into a five-episode series. Yet, despite its status as an “accidental novel” (to borrow Jonathan Yardley’s phrase), The Big Town would become, behind the baseball classic You Know Me Al, Lardner’s second best-selling book during his lifetime.

The over-the-top humor in these stories might remind modern readers of the madcap husband-and-wife farce of such iconic 1950s’ TV shows as I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, and in that sense they were ahead of their time. “There are, to be sure, some dated references,” says Yardley, “but they would be roadblocks only for the most insistently literal-minded.” The targets of Lardner’s wit and scorn are broad: the American (and Lardner’s own) fixation with money, with social status, with the phony veneer of gentility. Elizabeth Hardwick notes how the characters win readers over in spite of their delusions: “It is hard to feel much sympathy and yet occasionally one does so: the sympathy comes, when it does, from the fact that the jokes played upon these dreadful people are after all thoroughly real and mean. Even the language they speak with such immense, dismaying humor is a kind of joke on real language, funnier and more cutting than we can bear.”

And so, for our latest Story of the Week, present the first story in The Big Town sequence, in which the narrator and his family leave the safety of Indiana to find success and esteem in New York City.

Read “Quick Returns” by Ring Lardner

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