The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

Time is running out. I’ve not read enough, and I’m trying to catch up. Therefore, I have embarked on a reading list that includes the ‘classics.’  These books are on everyone’s must-read list.  Devouring these eclectic tomes has been enjoyable if a bit erratic.  I’ve relied on recommendations from lists on the web, family and friends, books on the curriculum at university, and suggestions from successful authors.  I’ve found it fascinating to research what books influenced great authors like Steinbeck or Hemmingway.  And it was during the drafting of an essay on William McIlvanney last year I viewed an interview from a book festival where he detailed the writers that he loved.  He named William Saroyan as an author whom he tried to imitate and laughed at how that shaped him at a young age.  Therefore, I had no choice but to read The Human Comedy.

William Saroyan (1908 -1981) was an Armenian-American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1940, and in 1943 won the Academy Award for Best Story for the film The Human Comedy. Saroyan is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He wrote extensively about the Armenian immigrant life in California. Many of his stories and plays are set in his native Fresno.  His best-known works are The Time of Your Life, My Name Is Aram, and My Heart’s in the Highlands. His two collections of short stories from the 1930s, Inhale Exhale (1936) and The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1941), are regarded as among his significant achievements and essential documents of the cultural history of the period in the American West Coast.

The story of The Human Comedy, and the characters Homer and Ulysses, is based on Saroyan’s life, living fatherless with his siblings and his mother. The town in the novel, Ithaca, California, is based on the Saroyan hometown of Fresno, California.  Homer Macauley is a 14-year-old boy growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California during World War II. His oldest brother, Marcus, is off fighting in the war, and Homer feels he needs to be the man of the family. To make money, he takes an evening job as a telegraph boy. Yet Homer also keeps up his everyday life, attending school, church, and the movies.  He is buoyed by his home and loving family, including a young brother, a sister who’s left school and is searching for work, and his mother, who works in the local factory.

The character of Homer is written with a simplistic light touch that demonstrates his humanity and sensitivity. Homer’s roots and an almost instinctive sense of right and wrong keep him real and hopeful. However, the novel’s optimistic tone forces the reader to ponder the broader questions of life with Homer.  He wonders why the world is the way it is and what can be done to improve it. He cares about the people in his town and feels terrible every time he must deliver one of the dreaded telegrams from the government informing the next of kin that their son or husband has lost their life. He has nightmares and feels that he is nothing more than death’s messenger. He develops a deep relationship with the Telegraph Station Manager and the old man who works the telegraph machine.

The language in the novel is direct, like Hemingway.  The sentences are concise and crisp. The book is divided into 39 anecdotal short stories told from the points of view of the family members. The stories are very insightful, each having a moral lesson or a dilemma to challenge the reader. Nevertheless, the plot is still complete and tight. The finality at the end was devastating but uplifting, and the reader was left feeling that these characters would overcome and survive.  It is beautiful and vivid storytelling, and although it has perhaps a rose-tinted view of America during WWII, it’s still honest and inspiring.  The characters are all engaging and, in their way, comforting.

One passage captures the period and the eternal optimism in the concept of America.  It wasn’t a reality then, and far less today.  However, it seizes the moment of the USA fighting in WWII. The station manager and his girlfriend are out for a drive on a Sunday, and they pass the river, where they observe various picnics.

‘Americans! Greeks, Serbs, Poles, Russians, Mexicans, Armenians, Germans, Negroes, Swedes, Spaniards, Basques, Portuguese, Italians, Jews, French, English, Scotch, and Irish. You name it. That’s who we are.’

This is a sentiment that the USA could do well to heed today.

This was a joy to read.