Short story: “The Laughing Man”

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“The Laughing Man,” by J. D. Salinger

From the March 19, 1949 New Yorker (here); collected in Nine Stories; also here and here

5,575 words

Like Frank O’Connor’s childhood stories, “The Laughing Man” is narrated by an adult mostly through his childhood self’s point of view. One thing I liked a lot in “The Man of the World” was how the narrator mentioned that his adult handwriting still showed the influence of his childhood idol. It was a way of saying implicitly, I am still that person—or maybe This still matters to me. The narrator of this story does the same thing, although (being a Salinger character) he takes it to a tongue-in-cheek* extreme, saying, “I happen to regard the Laughing Man as some kind of super-distinguished ancestor of mine.” He goes on:

And this illusion is only a moderate one compared to the one I had in 1928, when I regarded myself not only as the Laughing Man’s direct descendant but as his only legitimate living one. I was not even my parents’ son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in—preferably without violence, but not necessarily—to assert my true identity.

I like this. It says everything that needs to be said about the seriousness of childhood fantasies, and of storytelling in general.

I made a chart of this story. Notice that the only “live” installment of the Chief’s tale occurs just before he apparently gets stood up. That penultimate installment is valuable because it gets the reader more accustomed to the sort of pulpy melodrama that fuels the tale; without it, we might find the final one too silly to be tragic.

Section Word count
Backstory, containing the Laughing Man’s origin story but not a single actual scene 1,866 ~
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Initial problem (Mary Hudson) and resolution 1,403 ~
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Lead-up to crisis (including an installment of “The Laughing Man”) and crisis (break-up) 1,708 ~
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Final installment of “The Laughing Man” (which takes “no longer than five minutes”) 487 ~
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Close 111 ~

In a short story of this kind, so much is set up in advance that the ending can be as small as a tipped domino.

In general I think beautifully written sentences are overrated, but this one amazes me and I can almost type it out from memory:

It was the kind of whole certainty, however independent of the sum of its facts, that can make walking backwards more than normally hazardous, and I bumped smack into a baby carriage.

The shift from the abstract to the concrete occurs so subtly in the third quarter that when we get to the fourth, we realize we could have seen it if only we’d looked where we were going. Some have speculated that the baby carriage is a symbolic nod at what the couple is fighting over, though the narrator says he still has no idea “in any but a fairly low, intuitive sense.” I would rather see it as a symbol of what they’re going to miss, now that they no longer have a future together.

Another line I like: “I remember wishing the Chief had gloves.” The character isn’t a remarkably sensitive or nurturing sort of boy, as far as I can tell; this protective impulse is new to him.

*It’s always hard to say how tongue-in-cheek Salinger is actually being when he says things like this. He has a tone of earnest irony, of playing make-believe but playing for keeps.** Which has a very twenty-first-century ring, to my ear. I suppose Salinger was a big influence on Wes Anderson and McSweeney’s and other tone-setters. I always assumed the current earnestly ironic tone was a reaction to the problem David Foster Wallace articulated in his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (PDF here): when ironic detachment becomes practically mandatory, how is communication possible? But Salinger wasn’t struggling against the prevailing literary culture; he was struggling, I think, with his own glibness and cynicism. And he succeeded, at least some of the time. Certainly in this story.

**Edited to add: Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions put it well. “With each book, [J. D. Salinger] drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, ‘literally’ and literally, become indistinguishable from each other.” Hallberg is referring to the way Salinger sort of went over the edge towards the end.

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