“Once Upon A Time,” by James Christensen, in the writer’s home office
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, July 15, 2023)
Time for something about faces.
I realize that some of us aren’t enthusiastic about this. We easily compare our noses and eyes and brows and such to the perfectly-contoured face of some knockout celebrity, or glamour ad, or airbrushed fantasy.
That’s unhelpful. Don’t compare yourself to others. For anything. It’s like flying into the sun with paper wings. The Laughing Man, a character from the world of letters, never compared. Never complained. Never gave a flip about the cards he was dealt.
Which is to say that if you’re looking for a fine summer read, you can do worse than this J.D. Salinger short story, “The Laughing Man.” I read it now and again to keep perspective on my own face. My mug.
“Mug” or “mug shot” is what newsrooms traditionally called the photo that accompanies columns or guest commentaries. That’s right, the same unflattering term that police use to identify criminals. For most columnists that’s just coincidence.
Most columnists also don’t like changing their mug shots more than every 1000 years. Even so, today I’ve updated mine. Yesterday I turned a year older. It seemed time to freshen up.
Anyway, about the Laughing Man. While he’s no criminal deserving something as unbecoming as a mug shot, he is very much pursued by the authorities, often at the Paris-China border. (Yes, yes, remember Salinger writes fiction and he’s having some fun with geography.)
You should also be informed that as a boy the Laughing Man fell victim to nefarious bandits who kidnapped him. When his parents refused to pay ransom, the shameless villains put his little head in a carpenter’s vice with the appropriate turns to the right. The result, of course, left him ugly as sin.
I can’t share with you the exact details and extent of his facial contortions – I’m bound by the ethics and good taste of this publication – but, suffice to say, the Laughing Man wore a mask, not unlike Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man,” the real-life, 19th-century British medical patient who covered his face to avoid the taunts of children and mindless bullies.
The Laughing Man took his mask off, however, while in the good company of his forest friends, animals like dogs and mice and lions and eagles and boa constrictors. They always accepted him without question or reserve. With this wholesome nourishment, the Laughing Man not only dodged the authorities, but made a mockery of their efforts to capture and contain him.
You’ll have to explore the rest of Salinger’s story at your leisure with a cool, summer drink. But here are two closing notes. First, I read the story, again, while recently travelling with my son across a swath of Canada, 7,000 km return. We explored. That included the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. “People can do horrible things to each other,” I said aloud.
Even so, it’s always best to look difficult things, even evil, in the face. This presumably is why former newspaper magnate Izzy Asper envisioned the $350 million museum, a remarkable Canadian landmark and public provision of the highest order, one to visit if you’re even remotely close.
Second, it’s good to be back home, including in my home office where, beside an antiquated typewriter, hangs a significant painting, well-framed, the largest in the house, James Christensen’s print called “Once Upon a Time.” Think Narnia. Or Middle Earth.
It shows, naturally, a timeworn storyteller. With a gloriously matchless face, he’s in a forest telling stories to ogres and scamps and imps and innocents, an assorted woodland bunch with their own gloriously-bare, irreplaceable mugs. In an era when we can easily hide our true selves behind one mask or another, especially screens, it’s a remarkable picture of vulnerability.
“I’ll look like that when I’m old,” I sometimes joke to visitors. The old storyteller. Maybe. Other days I think it’s equally fine to be the rascal who just sits and listens alertly.