I just finished reading The Laughing Man by J.D. Salinger for about the seventh time in my life. It's in Nine Stories.
Many short stories come close to it in impact but none can claim primacy. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce is compelling, with its alternate, mind-bending ending. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is excellent, an uncomfortable depiction of you and me. The Lady, or the Tiger by Frank Stockton is tantalizing, with its portrayal of power colliding with an irreconcilable conflict.
The Laughing Man can be read over and over with no diminishment of its heart-wrenching effect. Chief, Mary Hudson and the boy Comanches, all of them are headily won over in their playground on the upper East side by the burgeoning love between a man and a woman.
When that love is extinguished, for whatever timeless reason, a heart-wrenching, indeed numbing, feeling of the loss of love oppresses the reader. Where does Chief go from here, and why did he let her go?
It’s a beautifully written story. The story is told from the vantage point of a nine-year old member of the Comanche Club, a group of schoolboys who are picked up after school every day by Chief, a New York University Law School Student, in his dilapidated school bus.
Chief takes care of the boys til dinnertime, by splitting the larger club into the Braves and the Warriors. He fills their time with baseball or football games in Central Park or, if it’s raining, trips through the New York City museums.
How would these kids otherwise ever roam those halls? During down times, and as a reward, he swings around in his broken-down driver's chair and tells them, in hair-raising installments, The Laughing Man story.
Chief is a wicked story-teller, and his account of the escapades of the Laughing Man traces a parallel tale about love through the short story. His face horribly disfigured in a childhood incident, the Laughing Man wanders through the heartless wilderness communing with exotic wild creatures, the beasts being the only ones who can bear to look upon him as he truly is.
Laughing Man foils the evil plots of bandits and villains and promotes goodness throughout the land. Chief is from Staten Island; do you know that's where I grew up?
"Once [Chief] started narrating, our interest never flagged. ‘The Laughing Man’ was just the right story for a Comanche. It may even have had classic dimensions. It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub."
When you were a kid, did you ever watch the water whirl out of the bathtub as the hot water got tepid? Did you ever buy those 25c turtles at the dime store; I'll bet they resided in your bathroom before they expired.
When the Chief’s love interest shows up, the beautiful and ebullient Wesley graduate Mary Hudson, the young captain of the Warriors’ team is shocked at the transformation that occurs in the normally self-assured and naturally graceful club director.
"The Chief was very nervous. He didn’t just fail to contribute any talk of his own; he could hardly listen to any of hers. The gearshift knob came off in his hand [as he drove the bus with amateur-like lurches], I remember."
When the captain gets smitten by Mary because she smiles at him as he tries to keep her off his team, he acts as any boy would to hide his embarrassment. "For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree."
Mary turns out to be a naturally gifted ball player and quickly earns a permanent spot in the Warriors outfield. The boys view her as a sort of auxiliary club member whenever she comes on their outings, and her presence, indeed her participation, is accepted and not resented by the boys (after all, she is a girl).
But Indian summer gives way to winter and cold winds blow in. The boys notice Mary’s absence, as well as the effect it has on Chief.
The captain of the Warriors spots her watching their baseball game from a bench a hundred yards away, and points her out to Chief. He goes to talk to her.
Mary walks back with him, but it is the end. "They didn’t talk as they walked, or look at each other."
Have you ever been there? Man or woman, oh yeah.
Mary declines the captain’s entreaties for her to take the field and sits on a bench, lighting a cigarette and crossing her legs instead. The young boy tries to alleviate the tension by buffoonery.
"I tossed my first-baseman’s mitt up in the air and tried to have it land on my head, but it fell in a mud puddle. I wiped it off on my trousers and asked Mary Hudson if she wanted to come up to my house for dinner sometime. I told her the Chief came up a lot. ‘Leave me alone,’ she said. 'Just leave me alone.'"
This is a dagger in your heart, right?
The boy captain "had no idea what was going on between the Chief and Mary Hudson, but nonetheless, I couldn’t have been more certain that Mary Hudson had permanently dropped out of the Comanche lineup." Shortly thereafter she ran off, crying.
"The Chief didn’t go after her. He just stood watching her disappear."
A man. Then, as was his custom after games, he directed the boys into the bus to hear another installment of The Laughing Man.
Within five minutes, he had irrevocably killed off the Laughing Man. The youngest Comanche burst into tears, and no one told him to shut up.
The captain’s knees were shaking as the bus took him home. There, his teeth chattering uncontrollably, he was told to go straight to bed.
I read this story to my 12-year old charges in my cabin when I was 16. They were economically depressed kids from Harlem attending the Lawrenceville Preparatory School Camp in the summer of 1968 in New Jersey, thanks to dedicated donations from the school's collection at the non-denominational mandatory Sunday chapel.
I love this heartbreaking love story. It’s a masterpiece.