J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”

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I admit I somewhat enjoy it when a story has a cryptic title. I’ve read at least two this year with strange names that provided no real clue to what the stories might be about, “The Mutants” by Joyce Carol Oates, “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury. Then, this weekend when I drew the King of Hearts from my short story deck, I was led to the J.D. Salinger story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” What the heck could that be about?

A few years back, I purchased a slim paperback volume, “Nine Stories,” by J.D. Salinger. As of this morning, I’ve still only read five of the nine (this is what I tend to do, “ration” stories in a collection out over time, so as to delay that dreaded “they’re all gone” feeling when the supply has been exhausted). The collection was published in 1953, and features some other famous stories, such as A Perfect Day for Bananafish – which I read a couple years ago (and didn’t like) and “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” which fellow blogger Dale at Mirror with Clouds posted about. When it came time to pick my 52 short stories for this year’s “Project: Deal Me In,” though, I had to include a couple more Salinger stories. This was one of them.

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***spoilers follow***
The story details a visit between two old college friends, Eloise (now married and with an eleven year old daughter, Ramona) and Mary Jane (divorced). A business errand of Mary Jane’s brings her near her old friend’s house so she stops for a visit. Once inside, they “head straight for the liquor cabinet.” Downing highball after highball (over the initial protests of Mary Jane) they begin to commiserate about how their lives have turned out. (Eloise has some harsh things to say about the male of the species too.)

Unhappy in her marriage, Eloise recalls an early love, Walt, a soldier who went off to war and was killed, though not “in action” in the traditional sense. This was a man with the right qualities, the ones that Eloise cherished anyway: a sense of humor and intelligence. It is in Eloise’s relating a story of Walt’s tenderness from their past where we learn the source of the title of this story. Walt comforts an injured Eloise by saying “Poor Uncle Wiggily.”* Eloise describes him: “Ah, God, he was nice. He was either funny or sweet. Not that damn little-boy sweet, either. It was a special kind of sweet.”

This event from the past is somehow linked to Eloise’s dealing with her daughter’s oddness (which includes an imaginary friend and beau, Jimmy Jimmereeno). Early in the story the daughter describes Jimmy to Mary Jane then later goes outside to play. After the adult women have become drunk and the child returns indoors, Eloise asks her, “What happened to Jimmy?” and Ramona replies “He got runned over and killed.”

Eloise sends Ramona to bed after checking her forehead to see if she’s feverish, but is shocked later when she checks on her in bed and finds her lying “way over on one side” of the bed (as she used to do make room for the imaginary Jimmy).

“I thought you told me Jimmy Jimmereeno was run over and. Killed.”
“What?”
“You heard me,” Eloise said. “Why are you sleeping way over here?”
“Because,” said Ramona.
“Because why? Ramona, I don’t feel like-“
“Because I don’t want to hurt Mickey.”
“Who?”
“Mickey,” said Ramona, rubbing her nose. “Mickey Mickeranno.”

Eloise shrieks at Ramona to get in the center of the bed but then finally softens and feels some sympathy for her poor, disturbed girl, holding her glasses from the nightstand and repeating “Poor Uncle Wiggily.” Somehow she has been transported to another time when she herself was a “nice girl” and capable of feeling sympathy and worthy also of receiving it. A time so distant from the present that she weeps. A sad story, but with a kernel of hope at the end(?)

Have you read this Salinger story? What was your take on it? What is your favorite from his collection,”Nine Stories?”

*I discovered in my “research” that “Uncle Wiggily” was a beloved character from a popular series of children’s books from 1910 to about 1940. He was an elderly rabbit, plagued by rheumatism, who encountered and escaped troubles by either his wits or by coincidental good fortune. I’ll have to see if I can find one of the 76(!) books in which he appears.  Have you ever heard of Uncle Wiggily? I hadn’t, but then I wasn’t alive in 1940, or 1950, or 1960, or, well… let’s just say I’m too young to have known about him.  🙂

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Short Story Month (looking at some Salinger)

Each July, my book club takes a ‘break’ and reads a group of short stories.  Each member selects one story and shares it with the group via a link to on-line availability or a photocopy or an emailed PDF file.  Everybody reads all the stories (generally, this has been a much lighter ‘pages to read burden’ than a normal month) and then we meet and discuss our thoughts.  In the past, I’ve picked out past favorite stories of mine that I’ve read more than once: Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” Kipling’s “The Brushwood Boy” are two of my picks.  This year, I thought I’d try to find a new story.  With that in mind, when I was shopping at “Full Price Books” (er, I mean “Borders”) for my book club’s June  book (In the City, at Least Someone Would Hear Me Scream by Wade Rouse – as it turns out, this book only becomes available in paperback tomorrow, and they were sold out of the hardcover copies.  This provides me with an excuse to go back downtown one day this week after work and stop by my favorite pub, O’Reilly’s, which is just around the corner from Borders J)

Anyhoo… since they didn’t have the book I wanted, I browsed  for a while and picked up a couple books.  One was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, which I’ve coveted for quite a while (ever since my bookclub read the same author’s Love in the Time of Cholera in early 2007 – still one of my favorite’s that my book club has read) and which I look forward to reading.

The other book I picked up was “Nine Stories” by J.D. Salinger.  It’s a collection of – you guessed it – nine of his short stories.  Now, awhile back – around the time of J.D. Salinger’s death – I had posted about finally filling a gap in my cultural literacy by reading Catcher in the Rye (Nope, still haven’t done that), and perhaps feeling guilty about never getting that done led me to buying this book.

I read two of the shorter stories in the little café (actually if you’ve been to the downtown Indianapolis Borders you know this is a misnomer) before I left the store.  Neither one of them would I recommend to my book club.

The first one was called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”  I don’t know if you’ve read it or not but **Spoiler Alert!** I found it distressing and a bit confounding.  A woman (Muriel) is on her honeymoon (or second honeymoon I guess) with her husband, (Seymour Glass) who is apparently mentally disturbed & suffering from unspecified troubles.  I had the impression or made the conclusion (though baseless) that he was a former soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.  His wife is vapid and the reader is persuaded via a phone call with her mother, which is related in the early part of the story, to form an easy dislike of her.

Seymour spends some time on the beach and encounters a very young girl (Sybil), who he apparently has had some contact with at the hotel in which they are both staying.  (He plays the piano and she has sat with him on the piano bench as he played).  He compliments her on her “blue swimsuit” and she points out to him that it is “yellow”; as they swim out a bit into the ocean he tells her the story of the Bananafish.  I had a brief fear that the story would veer off onto some  weird, “pedophiliacal” course, but it doesn’t. The gist of the story of the bananafish is that it eats so many bananas that it cannot swim back out of the ‘hole’ it swam into to eat the bananas.  (are the bananas in the water?  – I have no idea).  Anyway, after the swim, he goes back to the hotel room and, while gazing at his sleeping wife, takes out a gun and kills himself.  Pretty light reading, huh?

I read somewhere on-line that the Seymour character is supposed to be a ‘sensitive, fragile person” his name Seymour “see more” and “glass” as in fragile. The criticism cited on answers.com questions “is Seymour the bananafish who has glutted himself with the simple pleasures of life (like swimming with an innocent child) but who then must die because such rapture cannot be sustained? Or is he afraid of becoming like the bananafish, making his suicide his only solution for forsaking the sensual pleasures of the world?”  I guess it’s possible. Thumbs down from me on this one.

The second story I read was titled “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and deals with a man who receives a phone call from a friend while he is enjoying the company of a female.  The friend goes on and on about how he doesn’t know where his wife is and how he should have never married her because she apparently sleeps around.

I like this one a little better as I assumed early on that the woman with Lee (the phone call receiver) is in fact Joanie (the phone caller’s wife).  This belief is supported later when Arthur (the phone caller) asks if Lee minds if he stops by to talk, and Lee is not too encouraging of the idea.  He basically tells Arthur to relax and that Joanie will surely come home and ‘barge in’ any moment now.  The conversation ends, but the phone rings again not long afterward.  Arthur says “She just barged in,” etc. and that everything is okay.  I suspect he is lying to ‘save face’ or for other purposes, but I believe the ending is open to interpretation.  I don’t think I will recommend this story to my club either, though.

The search continues.

J.D. Salinger

It’s been a couple weeks now since the author of the wildly popular book, Catcher in the Rye, passed away.  I am probably one of a small minority of people who consider themselves reasonably culturally literate but haven’t read this book.  With a three-day weekend dead ahead (thank you, President’s Day!), I think I may give it a shot.  I was reminded of Salinger when surfing at lunch and saw the following on NPR’s site.  Interesting stuff.

Damn, my lunch hour is expiring as we speak.  I’ll update later on whether or not I got to this book over the weekend…