Thursday, May 04, 2017

"Liberty Hall" (1929)

Read story by Ring Lardner online.

Ring Lardner is a writer I should probably read more. So is S.J. Perelman. But I digress. I happened to be rereading The Catcher in the Rye recently, where Holden Caulfield has high praise for Lardner, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 48. "Liberty Hall" is set in 1920s Manhattan (so it's not hard to see where Holden Caulfield might be coming from). The story is charming, witty, just really well done, and not shallow either, though it easily could have been. It's told in the first person by the wife of the main character, Ben Drake, who is a celebrated Manhattan composer—George Gershwin is name-checked as a "rival." Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael seem likely as more rivals, perhaps even models for Drake. Drake is plunged happily into his work and has little patience for glad-handing and swimming the social currents. Getting him out of exhausting social calls is the chief preoccupation here. People want to befriend him for the cachet of doing so, and they also want to feel superior to him. I understand this is a common problem of celebrity. The impossibility of it all climaxes when they meet the Thayers, a couple who seem much less than ordinarily grasping. Eventually the Drakes trust them enough to accept an invitation to stay with them as house guests for a week or two, for purposes of isolating and recharging, between jobs in Drake's busy life. But the Thayers quickly show they are the most grasping and controlling of them all, in scenes that are at once funny and painful. It reminded me very much, and in all good ways, of an episode of I Love Lucy. One such incident raises questions about when the story was written. Drake sees a copy of The Great Gatsby and eagerly picks it up, saying he had meant to get to it and is now grateful to find the opportunity. "'Heavens!' said Mrs. Thayer as she took it away from him. 'That's old! You'll find the newest ones on the table.'" The alert reader will have noticed she takes the book away from him, even as she piles on with the debt of her hospitality and her superiority (she has all the latest books, you see, whereas Drake has not even read the old Fitzgerald). That's how the story proceeds. It's exasperating chamber encounters and often very funny. As for the niggling issue of the date, I keep seeing either 1924 or 1929, or both, on the copyrights, which suggests to me it was published and then rewritten later for republication. The Great Gatsby, of course, was published in April 1925. At any rate, "Liberty Hall" is a good story—above all, funny, which is about the hardest thing to do in writing, but making heavy points about the (comical) human condition as well.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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