Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ring Lardner's "Haircut"--Library of America's "Story of the Week"

The Library of America’s “Story of the Week” this week ( is Ring Lardner’s famous “Haircut,” a kind of dramatic monologue delivered by the town barber to a captive listener about the death of the town bully and prankster.  You can read the story at the Library of America’s website. I offer the following thoughts about the story to suggest, as I have often done over the years, that short stories should be read carefully and often, not carelessly and only once. I first published these remarks many years ago in the journal Explicator.

Reader response to the story over the years has been largely determined by Cleanth Brooks’s and Robert Penn Warren’s early discussion in their famous collection Understanding Fiction over fifty years ago:  “We have the moral satisfaction of seeing the biter bit, the joker caught in the destructive consequences of a joke whose destructive nature for other people he could never have understood or cared about.”  In his book on Lardner, published in 1963, Walton R. Patrick agrees, saying that Jim Kendall meets his death as the result of his meddling and “richly deserves his fate.”

In addition to making this rather simple moral judgment, the critics, of course, point out that the barber-narrator’s acceptance of Jim Kendall’s jokes deepens the action so that we have, as Brooks and Warren suggest, “a sense of brutality and evil thrive by a kind of connivance on the part of those who do not directly participate in it, a sense of the spreading ripples of complicity always around the evil act.”

However, such a reading ignores the act in the story more evil than Jim’s jokes; that is, Jim’s “accidental death.”  Perhaps because the killer is what folks at the time called a “halfwit,” readers have felt that no one is guilty.  But I believe that Lardner’s satire is even more savage than most people think.  I suggest that his attack is not just on the practical joker and a small town’s obtuse moral sense, but even more on the reader’s willingness to approve of the extreme penalty for Jim as his just punishment for his practical jokes.  The reader becomes as morally implicated in the death as the barber and the townspeople by accepting what was obviously their use of the young man Paul to rid themselves of a troublemaker and prankster that they hated and feared.

Many clues in the story suggest that the townspeople are neither so delighted with Jim’s jokes as the barber implies, nor that the barber himself is as obtuse as we would like to believe.  But the reader is so busy feeling superior to the barber, so busy making fun of him and feeling appalled at Jim’s jokes that he fails to sense the horror of the murder and the town’s willing acceptance of it. 

For example, that Jim has his own special chair in the barber shop and that if anyone was sitting in it, “why they’d get up when Jim came in and give it to him”; that when he is making fun of Milt Sheppard’s Adam’s apple, Milt would have to “force a smile”; that when Jim fails in his efforts with Julie, Hod Meyers “had the nerve” to kid him about it—all this should be sufficient to indicate that Jim is not so much admired as he a bully who is feared.  The barber’s final comment—“It probably served Jim right, what he got”—has at least as much emphasis as his “we miss him around here.”

Moreover, several details in the story suggest that the barber and the townspeople are more sympathetic with Julie’s dilemma than with Jim’s pranks and that the barber doesn’t think that Paul is such an idiot after all.  For example, when telling about Jim’s calling Paul crazy or cuckoo, the barber says,”Only poor Paul ain’t crazy, but just silly.” He also has been told by the doctor that the boy was getting better, “that they was times when he was as bright and sensible as anybody else.” Nor is the barber so insensitive and crude that he fails to recognize and understand Julie’s love for the doctor: “I felt sorry for her and so did most other people.”

Moreover, the barber can well imagine the doctor’s response and dilemma when he learns about the joke Jim played on Julie. “It’s a cinch Doc went up in the air and swore he’s make Jim suffer.  But it was a kind of delicate, because if it got out that he had beat Jim up, Julie was bound to hear of it and then she’d know that Doc knew and of course knowin’ that he knew would make it worse for her than ever.  He was goin’ to do something’, but it took a lot of figurin’.”

And finally, the barber knows that the doctor told Paul that “anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live.” Such clues surely indicate that the barber is neither so crude that he applauds Jim’s joke on Julie, nor so stupid that the thinks Jim’s death was “a plain case of accidental shootin’.”

“Poor Paul” is nothing but a pawn, encouraged by the doctor and abetted by the town.  Brooks and Warren are surely right that there is a sense in the story of “spreading ripples of complicity always around the evil act”; but the evil lies in something more than Jim’s jokes, and the complicity than just the barber’s apparent sanction of them.  The whole town, by its acceptance of the so-called “accidental shootin’,” is implicated in the crime; and the reader becomes implicated his or her willingness to accept Jim’s death as a fate he “richly deserves.”

The barber says at the end that “Jim was a sucker to leave a new beginner have his gun….” But the biggest sucker of all is the reader who, by allowing him or herself to be taken in by Lardner’s control of the story and thus feel so morally superior to the barber, becomes an accomplice to the most evil act of all.


Richard L. Pangburn said...

Another good article. Please keep them coming. I'm going to have to reread the Lardner, plus CLEANTH BROOKS AND ROBERT PENN WARREN: A LITERARY CORRESPONDENCE.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

I just rerea "Haircut" and I like your take on it. The circle of complicity is a fine subject for fiction.

The inverse of this story is beautifully told in Wendell Berry's "Watch With Me." Probably my favorite piece of Berry's fiction.

If you get a chance, I'd like to hear your take on it.