The Books: “Nine Stories”- ‘The Laughing Man’ (J.D. Salinger)

31SFH69JEVL.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the third story ‘The Laughing Man’

One of Salinger’s perfect blends of comedy and pathos – another great example (if I could only follow it) of not saying too much. Saying just enough … but leaving some of the meaning and interpretation outside the lines… If you weren’t a careful reader, you would think that the Chief and Mary, in this story, were just having a fight. Maybe breaking up. But you need to read carefully. NOTHING is accidental or coincidental in a Salinger story (which is one of the reasons why he engenders such a fanatic following). But to paraphrase one of my old teachers, Doug Moston, “If you think it means something – it does mean something. You just haven’t figured it out yet.” Catcher in the Rye is full of stuff like that – which is why it is so good for high school students: Holden’s obsession with where ducks go in winter. The whole “catcher in the rye” thing AND Phoebe’s response to his monologue about it (“Mom and Dad are gonna kill you …”) … Phoebe’s hunter cap. All of these things have layers of meaning … you can’t just say A to B here. Salinger is working on multiple three-dimensional levels. That’s one of the reasons I find him so fun to read. What you see is not just what you get.

Take ‘The Laughing Man’. A simple story, on its surface: A man looks back on 1928, when he was nine years old, and part of an after-school program called The Comanches. They would all pile onto a bus after school and be transported to Central Park where they would play baseball, basketball … If it was raining, they would be taken to a museum. On the weekends, they were driven out to a baseball field in Jersey to play games. The head of this club is Joe Gedsudski, a 23 year old guy from Staten Island. They all call him “The Chief”. Words cannot express how much I love “the Chief”. And how much all the boys love “The Chief”. As their bus takes them to whatever destination they are headed for, The Chief tells an ongoing story about a horrifying and yet heroic creature called The Laughing Man. He is obviously making it up as he goes along, and he’s an awesome storyteller. I got hooked into the saga of The Laughing Man. I particularly love how The Laughing Man goes back and forth across the “Paris-Chinese” border. Yeah, cause we all know those countries abut each other. The kids don’t care about details like that, and neither does The Chief. The point is that The Laughing Man’s influence spans the entire world. He has enemies who want to get him. The story is quite violent at times. And The Laughing Man is ruthless when he needs to be. There’s so much going on in The Laughing Man story that I know I am not getting half of it. And what the connection is … although I can make up my own interpretations.

And one day – it is noticed that a snapshot of a girl is taped up on the windshield. A girl? Who is that?? The Chief kind of evades the question. But then – horrors – the next Saturday, they make a pitstop on the Upper West Side – and a GIRL gets on the bus!! The boys are furious. No girls allowed should be the rule. Now they don’t know how to act, how to be, they resent her presence, they also resent that The Chief’s focus is now split – he’s obviously way more aware of HER than he is of THEM and that is NOT. RIGHT. He’s nervous, too. He’s awkward, trying to make the whole situation work. And Mary (that’s her name) just babbles on to him about her train ride, and the boys sit in scowling silence, and nobody gets to hear the next installment of The Laughing Man … because she has wrecked everything just by being there. Girls have a way of doing that.

They get to the baseball field and are getting ready to play – when Mary asks if she can play, too. The boys are HORRIFIED. You? In your dress and heels? Play? They are so pissed. Girls should know when to go away! But they do end up letting her play – and that’s the excerpt below. It’s one of my favorite parts of the story – Mary playing baseball with the Comanches.

But over the course of the next couple of weeks, they not only end up getting used to her – but they expect her presence.

One day they wait for her on the corner where she always is, and she doesn’t show. Because the story is told from the perspective of an outsider – not to mention a little boy who doesn’t have the depth of understanding about adult relationships … we don’t quite get what is going on. We just know that The Chief is disturbed. They finally drive off without her, but The Chief is silent and distracted. The boys, by now, are so used to Mary that they are all thrown out of whack by her no-show. Where is she? They head out to the baseball field, and as they play the game, our narrator glances into the stands and sees Mary sitting there, flanked on either side by two other onlookers, both rocking enormous baby carriages. (Again: with Salinger nothing is accidental) The narrator points out Mary’s presence to The Chief – who seems elated and also agitated that she has shown up. He runs over to her – and from afar, the boys watch as … well, it’s not exactly clear what is happening. It seems that they are having a fight on the sidelines, some kind of altercation. The Chief ends up walking away from her, and she stands there, near third base, crying. The narrator calls out to her does she want to play and she says to him, “Leave me alone!” – which is stunning behavior to a little boy. He backs away from her, and trips over a baby carriage standing on the sidelines. (So again. You should, if you think a little bit, be able to guess what the situation is. It’s never spelled out – and even the narrator says he’s not sure what exactly was going on between The Chief and Mary but that he can guess …) My guess: The Chief has gotten Mary pregnant (hence the preponderance of baby carriages in this last scene). She didn’t show up at the appointed time on her corner because she had a doctor’s appointment. Maybe an appointment for an abortion, who knows. Or maybe it was just the appointment that would confirm or deny what they already suspected – that she was pregnant. Let’s remember that in the excerpt below, it is made clear that Mary hates first base, and always pushes whatever hit she got into a double or triple. Hmmmm. Coincidence? I think not. So when she shows up at the game, on her own steam, he runs over to find out what happened at the doctor’s office – and they have a fight. She ends up running off in tears, and the Comanches and The Chief head back to the city alone, on their bus.

On the way, The Chief gives the final (or, what will end up being the final) installment of The Laughing Man – which is pretty horrible, almost like a Jack London story. The boys sit there gaping, one of them starts crying … everything has changed … the story has changed, The Chief has changed – he is now more recognizably grown-up, definitely not “one of them” anymore.

Wonderful story.

There’s so much great stuff to excerpt here – a lovely tightly-wound deep emotional story … but I’m going with the day Mary forces herself onto the baseball team with the Comanches, and they are all so PISSED about it … but watch how they come around. Classic Salinger.

I love this line too: “Then the Chief took over, revealing what had formerly been a well-concealed flair for incompetence.” hahahahaha

EXCERPT FROM Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the third story ‘The Laughing Man’

When we got out of the bus, Mary Hudson stuck right with us. I’m sure that by the time we reached the baseball field there was on every Comanche’s face a some-girls-just-don’t-know-when-to-go-home look. And to really top things off, when another Comanche and I were flipping a coin to decide which team would take the field first, Mary Hudson wistfully expressed a desire to join the game. The response to this couldn’t have been more clean-cut Where before we Comanches had simply stared at her femaleness, we now glared at it. She smiled back at us. It was a shade disconcerting. Then the Chief took over, revealing what had formerly been a well-concealed flair for incompetence. He took Mary Hudson aside, just out of earshot of the Comanches, and seemed to address her solemnly, rationally. At length, Mary Hudson interrupted him, and her voice was perfectly audible to the Comanches. “But I do,” she said. “I do, too, want to play!” The Chief nodded and tried again. He pointed in the direction of the infield, which was soggy and pitted. He picked up a regulation bat and demonstrated its weight. “I don’t care,” Mary Hudson said distinctly, “I came all the way to New York – to the dentist and everything – and I’m gonna play.” The Chief nodded again but gave up. He walked cautiously over to home plate, where the Braves and the Warriors, the two Comanche teams, were waiting, and looked at me. I was captain of the Warriors. He mentioned the name of my regular center fielder, who was home sick, and suggested that Mary Hudson take his place. I said I didn’t need a center fielder. The Chief asked me what the hell did I mean I didn’t need a center fielder. I was shocked. It was the first time I had heard the Chief swear. What’s more, I could feel Mary Hudson smiling at me. For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.

We took the field first. No business went out to center field the first inning. From my position on first base, I glanced behind me now and then. Each time I did, Mary Hudson waved gaily at me. She was wearing a catcher’s mitt, her own adamant choice. It was a horrible sight.

Mary Hudson batted ninth on the Warriors’ lineup. When I informed her of this arrangement, she made a little face and said, “Well, hurry up, then.” And as a matter of fact we did seem to hurry up. She got to bat in the first inning. She took off her beaver coat – and her catcher’s mitt – for the occasion and advanced to the plate in a dark-brown dress. When I gave her a bat, she asked me why it was so heavy. The Chief left his umpire’s position behind the pitcher and came forward anxiously. He told Mary Hudson to rest the end of her bat on her right shoulder. “I am,” she said. He told her not to choke bat too tightly. “I’m not,” she said. He told her to keep her eye right on the ball. “I will,” she said. “Get outa the way.” She swung mightily at the first ball pitched to her and hit it over the left fielder’s head. It was good for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it – standing up.

When my astonishment had worn off, and then my awe, and then my delight, I looked over at the Chief. He didn’t so much seem to be standing behind the pitcher as floating over him. He was a completely happy man. Over on third base, Mary Hudson waved to me. I waved back. I couldn’t have stopped myself, even if I’d wanted to. Her stickwork aside, she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base.

The rest of the game, she got on base every time she came to bat. For some reason, she seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her there. At least three times, she stole second.

Her fielding couldn’t have been worse, but we were piling up too many runs to take serious notice of it. I think it would have improved if she’d gone after flies with almost anything except a catcher’s mitt. She wouldn’t take it off, though. She said it was cute.

The next month or so, she played baseball with the Comanches a couple of times a week (whenever she had an appointment with her dentist, apparently). Some afternoons she met the bus on time, some afternoons she was late. Sometimes she talked a blue streak in the bus, sometimes she just sat and smoked her Herbert Tareyton cigarettes (cork-tipped). When you sat next to her in the bus, she smelled of a wonderful perfume.

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