“The only son of a wealthy missionary couple, the Laughing Man was kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits. When the wealthy missionary couple refused (from a religious conviction) to pay the ransom for their son, the bandits, slightly piqued, placed the little fellow’s head in a carpenter’s vise and gave the appropriate lever several turns to the right. The subject of this unique experience grew into manhood with a hairless, pecan-shaped head and a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose.”
Or so the title character of J.D. Salinger’s short story, The Laughing Man, is described in the first couple pages of the tale. But – surprise! – the story isn’t really about the Laughing Man. Instead, we learn that the Laughing Man is a recurring character in the stories told by a kind of “scoutmaster” to his charge of nine- and ten-year old boys. This group is called the “Comanche Club” and their leader/scoutmaster is John Gedsudski, aka “The Chief,” who is a law school student.
Though revered by the “Comanches,” the chief is not much a physical specimen himself – at least by adult standards. He takes the boys after school and some “saturdays and on most national holidays” in an old bus to various adventures or to play sports, particularly baseball. And – after the games or on camping trips – there are always continuations of his “serial” stories of the Laughing Man. At one point in the story, however, The Chief introduces the boys to his new girlfriend, Mary Hudson. The boys are dismayed, but eventually are won over by her, most likely because of her fondness for, and proficiency in baseball.
Perhaps the Chief is playing a bit out of his league with this girl, however, and as you might expect, the relationship doesn’t last. The curious thing, and I guess the ‘gimmick’ of the story, is that – as the fate of the Chief’s relationship rises and falls, so does the imagined welfare of the Laughing Man. Maybe, with the Chief becoming jaded – for possibly the first time in his life – some of that dose of reality seeps through and contaminates the imaginary world of the Laughing Man – with dire consequences.
I liked the story. The fantastical character of the Laughing Man was genius, and the world he inhabited was like the real world, but not exactly. The boys are told he lives “in a tiny cottage with an underground gymnasium and shooting range on the stormy coast of Tibet”(!) and that he makes frequent trips across the “Paris-Chinese border” (what?!). His diet? He “subsisted exclusively on rice and eagles’ blood.” (Loved that one!). The boys’ burgeoning imaginations are well fed by these stories, and we hear of them “sizing up elevator operators as potential arch-enemies,” and fancying that they are “the only legitimate living descendant” of the Laughing Man.
I own this story in my copy of Salinger’s famous collection, “Nine Stories.” This was the sixth one of the nine that I’ve read. The Laughing Man was originally published in 1949 in The New Yorker (cover pictured below). I’ve also posted about one other of the nine, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” as part of my 2012 short story reading project. I didn’t start with any Salinger stories on this year’s roster, but Saturday morning I drew the two of clubs and this year “deuces are wild” so I raided Dale’s “Deal Me In” roster at Mirror with Clouds and picked this story. Dale has also posted about The Laughing Man. You can read his thoughts here.
Have you read this story? How did you like it? Are you a Salinger fan? (Coincidently, I’m reading the classic The Catcher in the Rye right now as well – for the first time – for shame!) Below: J.D. Salinger on the cover of Time Magazine in 1961.