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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