"The Laughing Man"
The narrator of “The Laughing Man” is a man looking back on his youth, in the summer of 1928, when he used to participate in an afternoon sports camp/club called the “Comanches Club.” This organization consists of a group of young boys being driven around in a school-bus by a NYU law student, named John Gedsudski but known to the kids as “the Chief.” On sunny days, the kids go to the park and play baseball or football; on rainy days, the Chief escorts them to a museum or some other such indoor venue.
What the narrator most vividly remembers, however, are not the games and the outings, but the stories the Chief tells the kids after the sun goes down, before driving them home. The stories revolve around a fantastical creation of the Chief’s – a shadowy figure known as the “Laughing Man” – and the narrator provides the reader a precise retelling of this makeshift mythology.
Born to missionaries in China, the Laughing Man was abducted at a young age by a group of Chinese bandits, who demanded ransom in exchange for the child. The missionary parents did not meet the demands, so the bandits placed the young boy’s head in a carpenter’s vice and turned the screw. As a result, the boy “grew into manhood with a hairless, pecan-shaped head and a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oral cavity below the nose,” which “dilated and contracted” in a hideous fashion whenever the man breathed – hence his appellation. So hideous was the Laughing Man’s face that people would faint immediately upon seeing it; so the bandits, who, “curiously enough […] let him hang around their headquarters,” required that he wear a red poppy-petal mask. A profoundly lonely sort, the Laughing Man would steal away into the forest whenever he could, communicating with the animals, who “did not think him ugly” and were therefore his only friends in the world.
The Laughing Man soon became famous for his criminal exploits – robbing, sometimes killing, but always exercising the greatest degree of mercy, compassion, and restraint, thereby earning the adoration of the fascinated public. When the Chinese bandits realized he was intruding on their turf and had become a competitor, they circled his bedroom one night, leapt upon his bed (the covers of which were drawn), and stabbed the sleeping figure repeatedly. When they removed the covers, they discovered that the figure underneath was none other than the head bandit’s own mother. The Laughing Man had eluded them.
Soon thereafter, the Laughing Man became legendary across the continents, periodically popping up in Paris to taunt international detective Dufarge, who, with his daughter, had sworn to capture the Laughing Man and put an end to his criminal career. Often the Laughing Man would leave cryptic messages in the Parisian sewers, playing cat-and-mouse games with his pursuers and always emerging with the upper hand.
The narrator returns to the Comanche Club, and tells us that afternoon day he and the other kids notice a photograph of a girl by the dashboard. It’s a strange sight, even unsettling, given the “boys only” vibe of the club, but the Comanches soon get used to it. “It gradually took on the unarresting personality of a speedometer,” the narrator notes.
Then, one day during baseball season, the Chief pulls the bus up to a Fifth Avenue curb, far away from the park. A girl hops on – the girl in the picture. The narrator is struck by her beauty. Her name is Mary Hudson. It is immediately clear that she and the Chief are seeing each other, but to the narrator’s eyes, she is a peculiar addition to the group.
On the baseball field, Mary insists on joining the game. The Chief seems worried, perhaps sensing that Mary will embarrass herself. What occurs is quite the opposite, however; though hopeless as an outfielder, Mary is adept at bat and an incredibly fast runner. She dives into the game with great zeal, and the boys are happy to have her playing.
A few weeks later, the Chief adds a new installment to the Laughing Man saga, when parked outside Mary Hudson’s place again, waiting for her to appear. The Laughing Man’s best friend, a timber wolf named Black Wing, was captured by the Dufarges, who offered the Laughing Man Black Wing’s freedom in exchange for his own. The Laughing Man agreed, giving himself up to be tied to a tree in the forest by Dufarge and his daughter. Then they released a stand-in timber wolf, who they assumed would fool the Laughing Man and satisfy him. The Laughing Man, however, knew the timber-wolf language, and after speaking with the substitute wolf, learned that he had in fact been duped. Enraged, he pushed off his mask with his tongue and gazed the Dufarges head-on. The daughter promptly fainted, and M. Dufarge fired a round of bullets into the Laughing Man’s body.
There the installment ends. Mary Hudson has still not appeared. Visibly irritated, the Chief starts up the bus and drives on. Then, at the park, the narrator notices Mary Hudson sitting off to the side, in between two ladies with baby carriages. He tells the Chief, who goes over to speak to Mary. He and Mary walk toward the baseball field together. “They didn’t talk as they walked,” the narrator recalls, “or look at each other.” The narrator asks if Mary is going to play. When she just takes a seat at the players’ bench, he goes over to her and asks her himself. Her reply: “Leave me alone.”
After a few innings, the narrator notices that Mary is crying. The Chief goes over to speak with her again. He grabs hold of her coat, but she slips away and runs off in tears. Back on the bus, the Chief finishes the Laughing Man episode:
Four of Dufarge’s bullets had met their target. The Laughing Man was slumped over, apparently dead. Rejoicing, Dufarge awoke his daughter and pointed her to the corpse. The Laughing Man, however, was only holding the bullets in his contracted stomach muscles; with a start, he “raised his face, gave a terrible laugh,” and regurgitated the bullets. This act so shocked the Dufarges that they dropped dead of heart attacks on the spot.
The Laughing Man was close to death, himself. Bleeding from his wounds and cut off from his main source of nutrients – eagle’s blood – he fell into a coma just before his friend, the dwarf Omba, arrived with medical supplies. Omba managed to wake the Laughing Man, who asked where Black Wing was. Omba regretfully informed him that Black Wing was dead. At that moment, a “peculiar and heart-rending gasp of final sorrow came from the Laughing Man,” and with that he died.
The kids on the bus are shell-shocked. One bursts into tears. The Chief drives them home, and the narrator, on the way to his apartment, sees “a piece of red tissue paper flapping in the wind against a lamppost.” It reminds him of a poppy-petal mask.
“Down at the Dinghy”
Sandra and Mrs. Snell, two maids in the lake-side house of Boo Boo Tannenbaum (originally Boo Boo Glass), are conversing in the kitchen. Sandra has apparently said something in the presence of Mrs. Tannenbaum’s young son which she should not have. She resolves not to worry about it.
Boo Boo arrives. Mrs. Snell mentions that she hears Lionel – the son – is “supposeta be runnin’ away.” Boo Boo replies that it “certainly looks that way.” It seems that Lionel “runs away” quite often – though never very far.
Boo Boo exits the house and approaches the pier. Lionel is seated “in the stern seat of his father’s dinghy.” Boo Boo speaks to him on his own terms, calling out “ahoy” and introducing herself as “Vice-Admiral Tannenbaum.” She makes what sound like bugle calls with her thumb, index finger, and mouth, then remarks that she can’t make any more of them because there are “too many low-grade officers around.” Lionel seems to be coming around; he goes from arguing that his mother cannot be an admiral because she is a lady, to watching her bugle calls wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Boo Boo says to Lionel: “You told me you were all through running away.” Lionel resumes his former poutiness, says he never promised not to run away, then yells at his mother when she tries to board the boat. He throws a pair of goggles overboard – goggles which, we learn, once belonged to his “Uncle Seymour.” Then he chucks a key chain his mother offers to him into the water as well. Finally, he melts into tears. Boo Boo approaches him and holds him. He tells her that “Sandra – told Mrs. Smell – that Daddy’s a big – sloppy – kike.” Boo Boo flinches, but then tosses it off, trying to console her son: “Well, that isn’t too terrible.” She asks Lionel if he knows what a “kike” is. “It’s one of those things that go up in the air,” he says. “With string you hold.”
Boo Boo tells Lionel that later that day they’ll go with “Daddy” on a boat-ride. The young boy is cheered. He and his mother race back to the house. He wins.
“The Laughing Man” is the first of Salinger’s Nine Stories to break the parameters established by “Bananafish” – namely, unity of space and time. Whereas “Bananafish”, “Uncle Wiggily”, and “Eskimos” (as well as the later “Down at the Dinghy”) all recount discrete episodes that occur within the space of an afternoon or evening, told by an omniscient narrator who enjoys only fleeting glimpses into the inner lives of the characters, “Laughing Man” takes place over several months, and is told from the vantage point of many years ahead. While Eloise reminisces about her past, “Laughing Man” is itself a prolonged act of reminiscing – one that begins with the words “In 1928, when I was nine”, thereby clearly separating the ensuing narrative from the assumed presence of both reader and narrator.
Put more simply, “The Laughing Man” is very much a story, in the traditional sense. The earlier entries in Nine Stories assume the form of real-time documentation; they could just as easily be stage-plays, or short films. “The Laughing Man”, on the other hand, fits quite neatly into the traditional “Once-upon-a-time” modality. It is also written in the first-person, which has the effect of more clearly rendering thought processes and subjectivity. Salinger plays with this effect, by limiting the knowledge of the narrator. What we read is filtered very much through the eyes of a nine year-old boy, with his limited awareness of older people’s lives, of love and relationships and sex. Interestingly, for a story so resolutely past-tense (this is to say, a story separated from its telling by time, a “Once-when-I-was-a-little-boy” story), the added perspective of older age does not visibly enter into the equation. The telling remains rooted in nine year-old perspective, regardless of the assumed age of the teller; thus, it as if that teller had re-entered his younger self, his more innocent state of consciousness, in order to re-experience that period of his life through the appropriate eyes.
The comic and poignant rendering of events through the prism of limited awareness is an old trope in literature and storytelling. Mark Twain employs the device with gusto in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which events and institutions with which he assumes his readers are familiar, through their reading of history and their knowledge of political issues, are described from the point of view of a not-too-worldly youth, whose misinterpretation of his surroundings is supposed to reflect a deeper truth. Minus the facts, the seer sees more truthfully. Minus an understanding of French culture, Montesquieu’s Persians, in The Persian Letters, provide a more discerning account of that culture than would an insider; minus wisdom or education, Voltaire’s Candide or Fielding’s Joseph Andrews see life stripped of its obfuscations. They see the essence.
Confusion thus breeds truth; limited awareness is a pathway to honesty. Salinger himself adopted a similar approach in Catcher in the Rye, positing his adolescent hero as a sort of scattershot philosopher-poet, reading America like a wide-opened book. In “The Laughing Man,” he hints at issues such as premature pregnancy or relationship troubles by offering us only the signs a nine year-old can pick up on. Mary Hudson refuses to play baseball one day; she sits in between two baby carriages; she and the Chief aren’t speaking to each other; she breaks into tears. Certain commentators interpret these indices as reflections of Hudson’s pregnancy: she and the Chief are too young for a baby and have to now figure out what to do with it. Other interpretations simply point to a rough patch in the youths’ relationship – the kind of event or phase that is all too familiar to the average reader, but is a mystery to the narrator.
That narrator reads these signs in the terms he understands, and seems far more confident in replicating the Chief’s Laughing Man stories than in attempting to explain the “Mary Hudson” problem. What is even more significant is that the Chief himself plays a role in dictating how the narrator reads those events; when he doesn’t want to confront the issues, he dives into storytelling. The Laughing Man is an easy escape – and becomes the best means for the narrator to grasp what is actually going on.
“The Laughing Man”, then, is fundamentally a story about storytelling – and, with “For Esme”, one of the clearest examples of meta-form in Salinger’s work. The Chief’s stories comment on, reflect, and even answer the day-to-day events at the Comanche Club; when things get tough with Mary, the Laughing Man tragically dies. The relationship between the Chief’s stories and the narrator’s larger tale is thus akin to the give-and-take dichotomy between musical numbers and drama in a musical, or between the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the play itself. The reader is offered two separate forms and two parallel narratives, out of the collision of which he or she can read a third, synthetic tale. More than about a nine year-old’s camp experiences, or a young man’s troubled relationship, or a deformed criminal hopscotching around the globe, “The Laughing Man” is about what it means to tell a story, how the teller and his tale are ultimately inextricable from one another, and how subjectivity is a constant presence.
“Down at the Dinghy”, it should be noted, continues the inquiry to a certain extent, in its exploration of the coded language between a mother and her son – a language of bugle calls and Navy titles. Boo Boo attempts to reach out to her son Lionel on his turf, to play a game by his rules, and must share in a kind of imaginary landscape Lionel has established in order to do so. The story ends on a note of victory, with Lionel winning the race back to the house – a race only he could have cared about winning.