The Human Comedy
William Saroyan (Adult Fiction)
In a small town in Ithaca, California, during World War II, there lived the Macauley family—Mrs. Macauley and her four children: Marcus, Bess, Homer, and Ulysses. Marcus is serving in the army, Bess is attending college, Homer is determined to be the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, and young Ulysses, who at four years old, is enamored with everything in his very small world. The Macauleys are workers, dreamers, and God-fearing folks who are living each day to its fullest while trying to find their own particular place in the world. For Homer, it’s a time of hurdle races, playing catch, and riding his bike, but with the war and the grim news printed on each incoming telegram, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to put off manhood any longer.
This novel was billed as a coming-of-age story, but it truly is so much more. With its short chapters—almost vignettes—The Human Comedy gives us a humorous and bittersweet peek into the lives of the citizens of Ithaca. The elderly telegrapher fearing retirement, the son fighting in a war that he doesn’t understand, the town simpleton with a naïve heart of gold, a young boy with big dreams and ambitions, the teacher trying to impart a sense of civility and kindness into her students. All of these wonderful characters’ stories are stitched together to form a tightknit community that mourns their fallen, cheers their heroes, comforts their sick, and opens their doors (and hearts) to strangers.
The Human Comedy is considered semi-autobiographical as many of the novel’s characters and situations are based on real-life people and events from Saroyan’s childhood. Like Homer, Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian immigrant who lost a father quite early in life and worked as a telegraph messenger while a teenager. Interestingly, The Human Comedy began as a screenplay written by Saroyan, but while Metro Goldwyn Mayer was filming the movie, Saroyan decided to turn his screenplay into what would become his first novel.
One of the novel’s youngest characters, Ulysses, gains great pleasure and satisfaction from the simplest things. He often runs alongside the train as it travels through his town, waving to its occupants who always ignore our young man. On one occasion however, a black man sees Ulysses and returns his wave while shouting, “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!” The Human Comedy is a story of love, loss, decency, humanity, and kindness, but most of all, it is a story about home and the people we are blessed to call family.
*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com