“The Laughing Man” was originally published in the March 19, 1949, issue of The New Yorker. It was collected in Nine Stories (1953). It is currently most readily available in Nine Stories (Little, Brown).
When I reached up to the shelf and pulled down my copy of J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories, I noted that it was an old Signet Book edition, selling for 25¢. The pages had yellowed and the spine's glue had given up—pages fell on my lap. Carefully I gathered them up and carefully I read through the stories again.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Salinger stories, appearing at intervals in The New Yorker, were what we all waited for, devoured on sight, loved to talk about. The language, slightly tilted—precise observations oddly selected—caught up a shimmer of listening and seeing, drawn fresh from the writer's mind; our own minds willingly glowed in answer. Things were like that, we felt; we hadn't noticed. People were like that too! Those speeches with their pouncing italics, the careful attention given to shoe sizes, to nail polish, contents of refrigerators and bathroom cabinets, baseball gloves, vacuum cleaners, all the daily baggage of objects we used and lived with.
Interiors abound. We are always in apartments or taxis or hotel rooms or restaurants. Vital talk is going on. How much people smoked back then! Cigarette stubs choke the ash trays, packs are fished out of pockets, out of purses, rung from machines; the cry for matches is as frequent as goddamns. Habits of a generation pass before us, but especially active is this bloodhound of a writer who is all the while busy sniffing out the phony and following the faint trail of the true spirit.
But what is this spirit? There are puzzles here and booby traps and dangerous false leads. The rainbow has a foot; softly brilliant colors are bathing it. If only to find it. One reassurance: the writer is seeking too. He is ahead of us, never behind, but not so far ahead we cannot see his heels advancing. In his novel The Catcher in the Rye and in the stories, he hasn't grown certain yet. He is more aware of the Terrible Traps than of any way to escape them.