Sunday, February 27, 2011

Alibi Ike

Tales of the tall-tale teller are an American staple. From Mark Twin’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County to James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” we love to read stories in which the characters spin and doctor the truth and in which they don’t particularly mind being caught in a lie.

Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike” holds its head tall amongst such tales.

I haven’t read much of Lardner’s work – in fact, Alibi Ike is the first of his I’ve read. But that’s part of the goal of the Treasury of Laughter blog: Introducing myself to a grater variety of writers. But back to Lardner: What I have read about him points to his inventive use of vernacular, and I suppose I see that in Alibi Ike. What’s most striking to me in this story – and I’m sure the vernacular is part of it – is how natural Lardner’s dialogue sounds. Lardner has obviously spent a lot of time listening to baseball players and how they speak and is able to transcribe that talk fluidly onto paper.

Here’s such an example, not only of the fluidity of the writing, but also the tall tales Alibi Ike likes to tell. Full text of the story, for the curious, is here:

"My uncle out in Nebraska ain't expected to live," he says. "I ought to send a telegram."
"Would that save him?" says Carey.

"No, it sure wouldn't," says Ike, "but I ought to leave my old man know where I'm at."

"When did you hear about your uncle?" says Carey.

"Just this mornin'," says Ike.

"Who told you? "ast Carey.

"I got a wire from my old man," says Ike.

"Well," says Carey, "your old man knows you're still here yet this afternoon if you was here this mornin'.

Trains leavin' Cincinnati in the middle o' the day don't carry no ball clubs."

"Yes," says Ike, "that's true. But he don't know where I'm goin' to be next week."

"Ain't he got no schedule?" ast Carey.

"I sent him one openin' day," says Ike, "but it takes mail a long time to get to Idaho."

"I thought your old man lived in Kansas City," says Carey.

"He does when he's home," says Ike.

"But now," says Carey, "I s'pose he's went to Idaho so as he can be near your sick uncle in Nebraska."

"He's visitin' my other uncle in Idaho."

"Then how does he keep posted about your sick uncle?" ast Carey.

"He don't," says Ike. "He don't even know my other uncle's sick. That's why I ought to wire and tell him."

I know it sounds rather pedestrian to us now, as a lot of writers take this “transcribe talk” approach, but in Lardner’s time, it was pretty unusual, so that’s how it stood out.

Movie Sign!

Two writers this month, two movies from their writings. Maybe that's the acme of the writer's ambition, getting a story turned into a movie. Then again, given how Hollywood treats some stories, maybe that's not all that great an achievement.

More on this writer later today.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Beware Journospeak

It’s journospeak, and the local college paper’s writers have it bad. You can tell when a writer has it: They use those magic woids and phrases that you only hear in certain newspapers, where the writing and editing is slack and unimaginative.

Favorite journospeak phrases include:
  • members of the community
  • police recognized area volunteers
  • And the ever-popular passive voice: “A bill designed to legalize marijuana for medical use in Idaho was introduced into Idaho legislature by Representative Tom Trail (R-Moscow) on Jan. 19.”
You can hear readers thudding to the ground as they fall asleep reading their boring prose – as I can hear them occasionally after they’ve ready my blog.

This false formality, this mangling of words, this drawing upon the trite and overused, is what Arthur Kober draws on in his amusing piece “Monroe Goes Back to the Indians,” in which Bella Gross writes a painfully mangled letter to her beau Monroe, tossing him to the street in a formality that reveals Bella’s lack of the writing graces. Behold:

“First of all,” she went on,” I don’t want to throw up anything to your face but I feel this matter must be thrown up. Namely you might of forgotten about the fact that when I left ‘Kamp Kill Kare’ you declared yourself with all sorts of promises galore. I took you at your word in connection with the matter and gave up some ‘contacts’ which to me I didn’t want to give up, at the same time I thought inasmuch as you declared yourself the fair and square thing to do was not to go ‘galvinating’ around, not that I am the ‘galvinating’ type girl inasumuch as I wouldn’t stoop to be that common.”

Ow. Ow. Ow. I know I’ve written some real klunkers in my life, but Bella’s the kind of writer who inspires unrest.

You know, I think I’ll use this with my writing students, if I ever get any. This is an excellent bad example.

Kober obviously has an ear for mangled language. And like Prof. Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady,” he doesn’t seem shy about recording the mangled messes for the masses, to humorous effect.

Kober’s work is, of course, a good cautionary tale to the rest of us who find it all too easy to slip into the comfortable garb of the cliché writer. See? That sentence is full of stinkers. And we all ought to improve our vocabularies so when we write, we read real good.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eric Knight Come Home

You have not heard of Eric Knight.

I hadn’t heard of Eric Knight until I read his short story “All Yankees Are Liars.”

But you do know Eric Knight.

You know one of his characters. One of Eric Knight’s characters is embedded in American culture. And whether you like Lassie, that iconic collie dog, it doesn’t matter. Through that dog, Eric Knight will be immortal, even if no one remembers his name.

Born an Englishman, Knight’s career flourished in America. And in reading “All Yankees Are Liars,” it’s clear that Knight reveled in the differences between the two nations. In this short story, Knight easily captures the chauvinism of the Southern Californian – so loyal to his home turf he can’t deign to mention the Oakland Bridge as an example of a big American bridge when s quartet of Yorkshiremen challenge him to describe everything big in America.

Knight’s character goes on to tell the tale of irrigated land, corn fourteen feet tall and other mundanities until it’s clear his listeners believe he’s a liar, especially when he denied being a Yankee, as Yankees are from New England, not Southern California.

“Tha shouldn’t heed t’ cowd, being a Yankee,” he said.

“Ah, but I’m not a Yankee,” Mr. Smith said.

They stared at him in disbelief.

“Yankees,” explained Mr. Smith, “come from New England.”

They looked from Mr. Smith to one another. The big man named Ian took a deep breath.

“Yankees,” he said, “come fro’ t’ United States.”

“Well, yes. New England is a part of the United States,” Mr. Smith Said. “But it’s thousands of miles away from where I live. In fact, believe it or not, I should think you’re closer to the Yankees than I am. You see, the United States is a big country. In the part where the Yankees come from, it gets very cold in the winter. Where I am – in Southern California – it never snows. Why, I’ve never known it to snow there in all my life.”

And, of course, never the twain shall meet until the hapless Mr. Smith begins to tell outrageous lies about his former career as a cowboy, that his mother is a Blackfoot Indian princess – all tales the Yorkshiremen want to hear – and all they believe to be true, even though he’s lying through his teeth to them because they disbelieved his truth.

This all goes to show, of course, that the preconceived notions we all possess about people who live in other nations are most likely a bit false, but we want to believe them anyway. In other words, we’re all liars, not just Yankees.

Treasury of Laughter Has Returned . . . Again

All right everyone out there in Blog Land, the Treasury of Laughter is back. Cue the appropriate scene:

Used here under the fair use doctrine for educational purposes. Advance film to about 4:06.

And yeah, if this blog had any audience at all, I’m sure they’d be giving me the same stunned-bunny looks those Lake-Men give Thorin when he pops out of that barrel. But no matter. I’m back, and that’s what counts.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Know, I Know

Big wind with recommencing the updates, and hey, only one since then.

I'll confess: My book is in sad shape. It's going back to the book press for a second round, and this time I won't touch it until my wife tells me it's ready. So until then, enjoy a little bit of Ned Flanders.