The Laughing Man

Lena Armstrong

I remember the chairs throughout the house my mother grew up in. I remember the the comfy, leather recliner in my mother’s childhood bedroom; big, red chair in the living room; and the wooden bench in my grandparents’ kitchen. The chairs’ significance pales in comparison, however, to its sitter. Sinking into my grandfather’s lap, I would listen to hours of “Jelly Stone National Park” and the “Laughing Man,” begging for just one more story.

My grandfather wove elaborate tales of a great, big man with a large, permanent smile and amiable personality, the Laughing Man. He spoke vividly about the character’s adventures, friendships, love interests, battles, and cunning, which I eventually learned were not entirely his own creation. Years after his storytelling occupation ended, my grandfather revealed that the Laughing Man story was based on one in the collection of Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger.  This past summer, my grandfather reminded me of his favorite collection of short stories over lunch.  I felt conflicted between my desire to read the original story and my desire to cling to my idyllic perception of the Laughing Man forever. However, fueled by nostalgia, I borrowed his copy.

From the second I read the first line of A Perfect Day for Bananafish, the first of the nine stories, I noticed two things: the outdated language and my instant connection to the text. J.D. Salinger begins the story with a description of the scene: “There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.”  Emphasizing J.D. Salinger’s reference to outmoded typewriters, phone operators, and phone booths and the line, “She was a girl for who a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing,” I tried to explain to my grandfather my instantaneous reactions. It had such a profound effect on me in spite of, and because of, its style.

Published in 1953, Nine Stories deals with many post-war themes, such as depression and loss. Born during World War II, my grandfather grew up and lived in the post-war era, where he was forced to contemplate and understand the war’s profound effect. Like my grandfather, J.D. Salinger grew up as a Jew in New York City, so I found J.D. Salinger’s fiction mimicked my grandfather’s reality.  The book was able to transport me into the world of my grandfather’s adolescence with ten cent pizza, radio shows about cowboys, and pickup baseball games.  Devouring the stories one after another, I latched onto them as fiercely as my grandfather had done at my age.

As I read the collection of Nine Stories, I became attached to characters, savoring their rich backstories, intricate relationships, mixed emotions, and intense realities.The stories have prevailed the test of time because of their continued relevance and meaning; the emotions and plots within them are as probable and real today as they were sixty-four years ago.  J.D. Salinger crafted an entertaining narrative, full of complexities, details, and surprises. I took away not only a piece of J.D. Salinger’s mindset, but also that of my grandfather’s perspective.

When I finally arrived at the original story of the “Laughing Man,” my head spun at the stark contrast from my grandfather’s version. My grandfather’s Laughing Man had been a burly, happy man with a permanent smile across his face, like my grandfather himself.  I remember the way he would always pat the large, leather couch next to him, beckoning me to sit alongside him with an expression as amiable as his descriptions. My grandfather had explained that the Laughing Man had been born to kind people who couldn’t afford a child, so they left him in a small Chinese village.  He hugged me tightly as he told me of the village’s adoration of the Laughing Man. With a wolf by his side, the Laughing Man saved the countryside from evil in heroic and entertaining adventures.

J.D. Salinger framed his story around a baseball coach telling his players the story of the Laughing Man (as my grandfather had told me the stories). While Salinger’s Laughing Man had a distorted face, the similarities between my grandfather’s story and his ended there. The “real” Laughing Man was taken by Chinese slave owners. They put a pot over his head and twisted it, so he became permanently disfigured with a gaping hole where his mouth should have been. His appearance was so terrifying that he had to wear a poppy-seed mask. While his sidekick remained the same, the Laughing Man terrorized the villages.

Part of my childhood innocence disappeared with those pages. I felt the contrast between the story I had been raised on and the story J.D. Salinger had written reflected in my own adolescence. As I grew up, my conversations with my grandfather shifted from storytelling and imagination to politics and opinions. I began to comprehend the cruelty and injustice all around me that my grandfather had tried to protect me from at such a young age.  I understood why he wanted me to discover the real Laughing Man and feel its effect, but I was nevertheless disconcerted to discover the roots of my Laughing Man.

I realized that my grandfather had tried to share himself with me through these stories. He had transformed his understanding and interpretation of the world into something positive to share with his granddaughter. He had wanted to give me the same emotion and connection he had with the story, but he gave me laughter and happiness instead of the Laughing Man’s sorrow. My grandfather’s stories were able to connect me to him in the same way that J.D. Salinger’s baseball players were connected by the coach’s stories of the Laughing Man. My grandfather had never really given me J.D. Salinger’s Laughing Man, but rather his baseball game.

It was not the content of the story that connected us, but the act of storytelling. Like J.D. Salinger illuminated in his stories, people are connected by similar experiences. The baseball players gathered in awe of the coach’s stories in the same way that I admired my grandfather’s. The juxtaposition of the two Laughing Men carried the weight of growing up and bridged the generational divide, tying my grandfather and myself together as I transitioned from childhood to adulthood. I was able to see my grandfather as a young adult reading the same novel and contemplating the same intricacies over half a century earlier.