Literary small-town life at its most positive is crafted in ways that celebrate community, collaboration, and the gentle accommodation of vulnerability and eccentricities. Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” however, once referred to as “one of the cruelest pieces of American fiction” (Hardwick 1963), uses small-town life to expose the weaknesses, irony, and coldhearted self-interest inherent in the social contract of relationships. Lardner, well recognized for his bitter and cynical stories overflowing with greed, dishonesty, and cruel humor, created a small fictitious town somewhere in Michigan; opened a barbershop; filled it with locals; and sat a stranger down in the chair for a haircut. The narrative that follows, rendered as close to fiction as to reality from one moment to the next, is delivered by “Whitey,” the town barber, who slowly winds his way—from one point of divergence to another—along the story of the murder of the town prankster, Jim Kendall.
The story’s narration takes place entirely in the barbershop—perhaps as the day’s entertainment—since the shop is a much less lively place, the stranger is told, without Jim. During the course of the visitor’s haircut, Whitey pays homage to Jim, his death, and his practical jokes, drawing in the town’s main characters, all of whose lives have been touched by his malicious humor: Hod Myers, Jim’s former partner in crime, who tries his best to carry on without him; Doc Stair, the town’s handsome new young doctor; Julie Gregg, the too-smart-to-fi t-in local girl secretly in love with him; young Paul Dickson, who, brain damaged in a fall, is an easy target for Jim; and of course, Jim’s wife and children, who bear the brunt of his cruelty. All of these characters are linked in a web of emotions and interactions that ultimately lead to Jim’s demise.
In ways similar to Lardner’s prior work (for example, the satirical “AlibiIke” , You Know Me, Al , and Gullible’s Travels, Etc. ), “Haircut” excavates the moral codes of everyday life—the mundane yet complex negotiations of relationships carried out over time, and the intentions behind them—in order to condemn the flaws and shortcomings found in one and all. No character remains untainted. There is no portrayal that is fully good or fully bad, no right or wrong, black or white: merely a pack of moral dalmatians. In this story, Lardner’s focus is on the town’s collective give and take—the shared habits and rationalizations that maintain the status quo and allow its inhabitants to rest comfortably in the “the way things have always been.” But there is purpose to Lardner’s irony and satire, for with it, he constructs an examination of values, social strategies, power, and acquiescence within this muddled social setting, constructing a morality tale and providing “social correction” for the reader—life lessons admonishing against the flaws found unchecked in the author’s characters (Cowlishaw 1994).
But in “Haircut,” the exact intention of those life lessons has been left open for debate. As Whitey narrates the tale of Jim Kendall’s death, he appears to look back on Jim’s cruel brand of practical jokes with a sense of fondness. As the barber gradually reveals tales of Jim’s malicious pranks against total strangers, his heartless behavior toward his wife and children, and the attempted rape of the town’s eye-catching young Julie Gregg, Whitey ritualistically concludes each episode’s telling by reaffirming that yes, indeed, Jim was a “card”—a “character” who “just couldn’t resist no kind of a joke, no matter how raw” (30–31). Jim’s humor was menacing, victimizing all who received its attention, and yet appears to have received the approval of his Saturday morning audience at the barbershop. Lardner forces the reader to consider these responses, and the range of possible motivations for them. Is Whitey, a seemingly benign character, so cruel, himself, as to be truly indifferent to Jim’s malice? Does he lack the critical abilities or intelligence to recognize the difference between humor and brutality? Or is Whitey far less obtuse than he appears and, in fact, one of many participants in a dance between a small town and its bully (May 1973)? Jim’s practical jokes wield the power of indifference—abusing friend and foe, the hearty and the helpless. Jim’s behavior, while part of the town’s everyday life, is bubbling with potential for destroying the social contract—the comfort of certainty. Rather than risk confrontation, the townspeople give Jim his way—allowing him territorial rights to his own special chair in the barbershop and forcing smiles at his cruel tricks and jabs. What appears to be amused approval of Jim’s antics, might, as May points out, be capitulation—going along to get along—because the universe of small-town America, with its dependence on intimacy and face-to-face relationships, is ill suited to discord. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren also recognize these “ripples of complicity” that inhere in the townspeople’s reactions to Jim—other than those of Paul, who by virtue of being “crazy” is at least partially excluded from the normative social contract that binds the town and shoots Jim.
Once Jim has been killed, the town creates yet another sort of complicity or contract—the agreement that his death was accidental. It is here that Lardner leads the reader into complicity, as well—guaranteeing fulfillment of the author’s cynical expectations that the worst of human nature will rise to the surface. At best, readers believe, with Whitey, that “Jim was a sucker” for handing his gun over to an inexperienced hunter, and at the worst, they believe he had it coming (May). Through this strategy, Lardner redirects the critical gaze, from the story’s characters to the readers, as a reminder that they are deserving of his critical social commentary.
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “The Barber of Civility: The Chief Conspirator of Haircut.” Studies in Short Fiction 23 (1986): 450–453.
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, 1959.
Cowlishaw, Brian. “The Reader’s Role in Ring Lardner’s Rhetoric.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 207.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Ring.” New York Review of Books 1, no. 1, 1963. Gilead, Sarah. “Lardner’s Discourses of Power.” Studies in Short Fiction 22 (1985): 331–337.
May, Charles E. “Lardner’s Haircut.” Explicator 31, no. 9 (1973): 133–135.