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Nine Stories | "The Laughing Man" | Summary

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Summary

The unnamed narrator reflects back on a memory from 1928, when he was nine years old and belonged to an after-school organization called the Comanche Club. According to "a financial arrangement with [their] parents," the Chief, John Gedsudski, takes the boys to play baseball and camp in the Palisades. A 22-year-old law student at NYU and an Eagle Scout, the Chief is short and unattractive, with a low hairline and a large, fleshy nose. To the boys, he is an unqualified hero.

The Chief is a gifted storyteller who regales the Comanches with serial tales of the Laughing Man, a hideously deformed outlaw raised by Chinese bandits. The Laughing Man keeps his face covered at all times with a "pale-red gossamer mask made out of poppy petals" because people faint dead away at the sight of the gaping hole where his mouth once was. Along with a crew of faithful compatriots, the Laughing Man moves between China and Paris, outwitting his nemeses, Detective Dufarge and Mlle. Dufarge (Dufarge's daughter), and committing crimes with a fair-minded flair that earns him widespread admiration. He shies away from people and can communicate fluently with animals.

As a child, the narrator fantasizes he is the legitimate heir of the Laughing Man, and his parents are not really his parents.

One afternoon the narrator notices a photo of a girl in the Chief's bus. Eventually, the Comanches meet Mary Hudson, the Chief's girlfriend and a coed at Wellesley College. Mary is just one of three girls in his lifetime whom the narrator says have "unclassifiably great beauty at first sight." She begs to play baseball on the boys' team and proves to be an excellent batter who steals bases without sacrificing any of her feminine charm.

The relationship does not last, however. The narrator last sees Mary Hudson crying while the Chief holds on to her by the sleeve of her beaver coat. She "[gets] away from him" and literally runs away.

On the bus that evening, the Chief tells the final instalment of the Laughing Man. Attached to a tree with barbed wire and near death, thanks to the nefarious Dufarges, he commits suicide. The Laughing Man abstains from the eagle's blood his loyal henchman, Omba, offers, when he hears the Dufarges have killed Black Wing, his timber wolf friend. As the Laughing Man dies, he rips off his poppy petal mask. The first thing the narrator sees when he exits the bus is a piece of red tissue paper flapping at the base of a lamppost.

Analysis

In 1928 both J. D. Salinger and Buddy Glass, Salinger's fictional alter ego, would have been nine, implying there may be an autobiographical connection to the story's events. Moreover, it is an interesting time historically, marking the end of the "Roaring Twenties" and the height of prewar affluence. The entire story describes a class conflict in which wealth eventually defeats fair-minded integrity. Thus, the idea that American wealth (as readers will know) is about to take a beating, adds a subtle twist, too.

The story centers on the Chief's perception of himself as an outcast in affluent Manhattan society. He goes to NYU, not Columbia. He has to babysit to put himself through school. In the Laughing Man, he creates a powerful social critique in which people on the outside of high society are viewed (or view themselves) as hideously deformed; they must disguise themselves in order to achieve admiration. Eventually, though, they will be found out. Mary Hudson runs away from the Chief. The Laughing Man is outwitted by the Dufarges.

"The Laughing Man" is a frame tale within a frame tale, in which the narrator looks back on the moment when he lost his innocence—the Laughing Man's exotic gossamer mask becomes a piece of litter "flapping" on a lamppost—and the Chief recognizes his power is limited by his social status. The message is complicated. The child narrator identifies with the Laughing Man, but when the Laughing Man dies, his ability to assert himself as unique from his parents and their conventional lives also dies. At the same time, being unique is no good, either; not if it means you will lose the girl you love.

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