“The Laughing Man” by J.D. Salinger

Drawing the Jack of Hearts this week gave me another story from J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.  When I began reading “The Laughing Man”, I realized that I had read it before.  I’ve had this collection for a long time, so I’m wondering if I will remember other ones.

The narrator, who isn’t named, tells this story as a flashback to 1928 when he was nine.  As a member of a scouting organization called the Comanches, on weekends, he hops on a bus with his Chief and the other Comanches to go to a park to play baseball or football or some other sporting activity.  The Chief is John Gedsudski, a mild mannered young adult whom the boys idolize.

Salinger easily combines the innocent expectations of nine year-old boys with the sadness that can come with growing up.  One day the Chief brings a girl, Mary Hudson, along with him when the boys play baseball.  Much to the dismay of the boys, she politely insists on playing.  Much to their surprise, they discover she can hit the ball – really well.  The nine year-old narrator describes her in one of my favorite lines:

Her stickwork aside, she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base.

During the bus rides, the Chief tells the boys stories he makes up about an action hero called The Laughing Man – a name given to the character due to a facial deformity.  The boys sit on the edge of their seats while The Laughing Man gets out of life-threatening situations while fighting various arch-enemies.

The fact that Salinger uses baseball in this story makes it another favorite of mine.  He uses the game, the boys, the Chief, The Laughing Man and Mary Hudson to drive home (pun intended) the point that all good things come to an end.

“gumption” in Gone With The Wind

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, I’ve been making frequent posts about short stories.  That’s because I’m still reading Gone With The Wind.  I’m on page 852 to be exact – about 600 more to go.  As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t seen the movie, either, so I don’t know how everything will end, yet.

The “about the author” section of my book reveals that Margaret Mitchell’s motivation in writing this novel was to portray people who survive as opposed to people who don’t.  Her word for this ability to keep going was “gumption”.  Unless the novel takes a strange turn in the last 600 pages, Scarlett O’Hara will rank up there as one of my favorite literary heroines – and there’s no doubt that she is a survivor:  one with gumption.  I’m still uncertain about Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett’s sister-in-law.  Her almost altruistic character raises some questions in my mind about what Mitchell thought it takes to survive.  What makes up gumption?  Is selfishness or selflessness a part of it or does it take a little of both?  It was a pleasant surprise when Melanie grabbed the feet of the Yankee that Scarlett killed and dragged his body out of Tara with his head clunking on the porch steps.  Scarlett was impressed, too.   She recognized a “steel” in Melanie that until then had been unrecognizable.  Right now, I’m rooting for both of them.

Jack London Revisited

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Jack London.  I thought I was about due.  A character called The Malamute Kid is in both of the stories I read – the stories seem to be complementary of each other.  Known sometimes as simply “The Kid”, he seems a little different from some of London’s other heroes.  While he can be rugged and a loner at times, he isn’t always that way.  He has to deal with “The White Silence”  in the story of the same name.  He is travelling with a married couple when tragedy strikes.  I don’t think that I’m revealing too much in saying this as the Yukon is a common foe in London’s stories.  The Kid makes the tough choices as how to best proceed considering the circumstances.  The description of the White Silence is vintage London:

All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice.  Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.  Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterances.  And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him, – the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence, – it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.

London takes a break from the theme of loneliness in nature when The Kid mixes up his favorite brew in a cabin of friends in “To The Man on Trail”.  The cabin is warmer and safer.  Relaxing can occur.  The ruggedness doesn’t go away, it just takes a rest.  The Yukon isn’t far away, though – just on the other side of the door – and still in the slightly inebriated minds of the men inside as they drink to those outside:

A health to the man on trail this night; may his grub hold out; may his dogs keep their legs; may his matches never miss fire.

Visitors from the outside show up and some tough choices have to be made again.  As the reader might expect, The Kid is up to the task.

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”

Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Ambitious Sophomore” from his collection Bagombo Snuff Box tells the story of George M. Helmholtz, a high school band leader who goes out of his way and outside of his school’s budget to boost the self-esteem of his male piccolo player.

Perhaps a male piccolo player that needs a self-esteem boost could be considered social commentary and satire – the kind that readers tend to expect from Vonnegut – but I would tend to call this story simply fun, funny, and pleasant.  Written in the 1950’s, this story seems more innocent than other of Vonnegut’s works.

The title of the story makes me wonder, though.  The sophomore in question doesn’t seem that ambitious unless one would count hitting on girls as ambitious.  I would think the ambitious one in the story would be Helmholtz, himself.  His desire to have the best competing high school band is truly the basis for the humor and plot of the story.  The opening sentence might be a favorite of mine:

George M. Helmholtz, head of the music department and director of the band of Lincoln High School, was a good, fat man who saw no evil, heard no evil, and spoke no evil, for wherever he went, the roar and boom and blast of a marching band, real or imagined, filled his soul.

William Trevor: Three more stories

I read three more stories by William Trevor over the weekend and he’s still keeping my interest.  I’m not sure whether these stories rise to the level of “After Rain”, but I’m glad I read them.

“A Friendship” was my favorite in which Francesca is torn between her marriage to Phillip and her long-time friendship with Margy.  In similar fashion to “After Rain”, the current story tends to take place in an Italian bistro while the real story takes place in the form of flashbacks within the minds of all three characters.  The friendship and the marriage almost become characters themselves.  While the marriage relationship seems to win in the story, Trevor’s beautiful writing made me think that he was just a little more sympathetic toward the friendship.

“Timothy’s Birthday” puzzled me the most out of these three stories.  If I go back to Jay”s (at Bibliophilopolis) idea that Trevor’s writing gives impressions as opposed to always having a set plot, I would say that his impression in this story is disappointment.  Charlotte and Odo plan their adult son Timothy’s birthday dinner as they do every year.  However, this year, Timothy sends his nineteen year-old friend Eddie to tell them that he’s not feeling well and won’t be able to make it.  The puzzling aspect revolves around what seems like an odd business relationship between Timothy and Eddie.  It’s never quite spelled out, but Timothy’s parents seem just as puzzled by it.  They fully realize that Timothy simply doesn’t want to come to their dinner for him.  Like the other stories I’ve read, Charlotte, Odo, Timothy and Eddie all take turns telling the story.

“Child’s Play” tells the story of a boy and a girl becoming friends as a result of their parents’ divorce.  Gerard’s mother marries Rebecca’s father.  The two children act out scenes from their parents’ divorce during their playtimes and ultimately tell the entire story.  Actual scenes from the parents get melded together with the children’s acting to the point that it doesn’t matter who’s doing the telling.  It’s an unusual way to organize a story, but Trevor pulls it off.  I’m not sure that a lesser writer would have been able to do it as well.

Look for more William Trevor stories in the future!

“De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” by J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger’s short story “De Daumier’Smith’s Blue Period” sealed the deal for me in regards to his genius as a writer and apparently my selection of short stories for this year contains a high percentage having something to do with art.

A nineteen year-old American boy returns to New York in 1939 after living in Paris for nine years.  While in Paris, he dabbled in art.  Upon his return, he applies and is hired as a teacher for a correspondence art school run by a Japanese couple.  During the application process, the reader discovers how much this kid likes to lie, embellishing his background, only to find that he is the only teacher at the school and probably would have been hired regardless of his background.

I had a brief notion at the beginning of the story that this boy was going to be a pretentious  art snob (he had lived in France).  Though cynical and sarcastic, De Daumier-Smith (any reader would be 99% sure that this is not his real name) doesn’t take his art or anyone else’s art seriously.   To me, this made him likable, maybe even endearing, and unbelievably funny.  This is probably the funniest story I’ve read since Jack London’s “Moon Face”.  It’s not as dark as that one, though.

He hits on (via mail, of course) his female correspondent students, including Sister Irma, much to the dismay of her superiors.  He has what he calls an epiphany when he sees an attractive sales clerk in a department store window dressing a mannequin.  He goes to what I consider great lengths to let his reader know that this was NOT a mystical experience – just in case someone might think that a nineteen year-old boy seeing an attractive girl in a window WOULD be mystical.

I highly recommend this story not just for a good laugh – but for a brilliant one!

A Classic Surprise

I have a confession to make:  I’ve never known exactly what Rhett Butler didn’t give a damn about.  While I still don’t know because I’m only 400 pages into Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, my guess is that I will find out.  In spite of the movie (which I haven’t seen) leaving an indelible impression on pop culture for the better part of the last century, the novel itself only popped up on my radar in the last few years.

The February Meme from The Classics Club asks:

“What classic has most surprised you so far, and why?”

I have been surprised how quickly Mitchell pulls me into her novel’s world.  With unabashed pride, she paints a picture of 1860’s Georgia that I won’t be forgetting any time soon – and I still have over 1,000 pages to go.  I’ve been surprised at how well her novel incorporates the political complexities facing the United States during that time.  I’m surprised at how enthralled I am with the vivid characterizations of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara but am equally intrigued by Melanie and Ashley Wilkes.  I’ve been surprised to learn that at the onset of the Civil War, Atlanta was only about twenty-five years old while her sister coastal cities of Charleston and Savannah were moving into their third century.

The cover of my edition (see below) looks like a book one might find next to the magazine rack at the grocery store.  While romance is a big part of this novel, I’ve been surprised to find that Gone With The Wind is much more.

Look for another post when I finish reading it!