The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy

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.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut (Adult Fiction)

By all measures, Billy Pilgrim would be considered a lucky fellow.  He’s survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945, a POW camp, and a mountainside plane crash.  He’s married, has children, and enjoys financial security as a successful optometrist.  But, Billy also time jumps, which can prove inconvenient at times.  He’s also been kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet where he spends his time as a zoo exhibit.  Did I mention that he’s in the sights of a hired assassin?  It’s just another day in the life of Billy Pilgrim.

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut shares many of the same military experiences as his main character.  His novel is an anti-war dark comedy that delivers a bitter social commentary on the pitfalls of free will and the destructive nature of man.  It also flirts with being a bit anti-American since the description of the American POWs—as compared to the other detainees—are far less flattering and the particular slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse-Five) chosen to hold the Americans was once used to house pigs.  Although Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana, this novel and its message were undoubtedly influenced by the current events of the late 60s: Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Protests, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  Vonnegut lays it all out there and has no qualms letting us know that he was none too pleased about the current states of affairs at that time.

Vonnegut’s novel was selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, although I personally found it difficult to enjoy.  Given the time of its publication (1969), I understand the sentiments that Slaughterhouse-Five articulates, but I think less would have been more in this case.  Combining the firebombing of Dresden with time travel and then adding alien abduction on top of it left the story feeling disjointed and haphazard.  Just when the reader is feeling engrossed in a particular storyline, we are catapulted to a different time or planet.  It’s like trying to stand on the deck of a ship during rough seas and not seeing any sign of calm waters on the horizon.  Rather than being able to admire the overall view, you just want the voyage to be over so you can return to solid, stable ground.

Vonnegut also uses a lot of sensory imagery and phrasal repetition to reinforce the feeling of pain, the approach of danger, or the smell of death.  He is particularly partial to the phrase “So it goes” and one individual even took the time to count each occurrence…which turned out to be 106.  These three simple words always followed a mention of death and served as a convenient means of topic transition; however, by the fiftieth time you’ve seen it, it begins to lose its impact and has outlived its intended purpose.  Solid ground never seemed so far out of reach.

With all of the blatant anti-war messaging found throughout the book, I thought nothing stated Vonnegut’s intended message more simply and effectively than a rather benign scene where Billy jumped back in time and was watching a late movie.  It was running in reverse and showed American bombers during WWII.  As Billy watched, planes once pockmarked with bullet holes were suddenly pristine, German fighter planes were busy sucking bombs back into their holds, smoke and fire were lifted from the ravaged city, crewmen and civilians were again healthy and whole, and the dangerous minerals used to make those deadly weapons of war were safely restored back to the ground and no longer a danger.  Unfortunately, we know all too well that this didn’t happen.  So it goes.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

puddnheadwilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson

Mark Twain (Adult Fiction)

Thomas Paine once said, “Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.”  Whichever you choose to use—title or nickname—one thing is for certain and that is Mr. David Wilson has got himself a doozy.  David Wilson is a lawyer and a newcomer to Dawson’s Landing, a slaveholding town on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.  Since irony is apparently lost on the good folks of Dawson’s Landing, Mr. Wilson’s first (and last) attempt at humor falls somewhat flat and results in the people thinking their newest citizen is a fool; therefore, it is only reasonable that they give him the equally fitting nickname of “Pudd’nhead”.  Fortunately, what Pudd’nhead lacks in comedy he more than makes up for with fads.  He has a penchant for palmistry and finger marks and is so enamored with the latter, he goes all around town collecting as many as he can from anyone he meets.  Little does he know how useful these marks will prove to be when a case of mistaken identity, a series of robberies, and a brutal murder will ultimately point to the fact that perhaps Pudd’nhead Wilson isn’t such a fool after all.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is part murder mystery, part social commentary, and part psychological study of nature versus nurture.  Combined, it’s a humorous and thought-provoking story of good intentions, broken promises, honor, love, and the ultimate price of sin.  Twain gives us a story of two babies—one free and one slave—who were switched at birth and grow up according to their station in life.  The slave is bound to his master while the other is bound by his uncle’s and society’s expectations.  Twain also delivers one of the most infuriating and insufferable characters ever to grace the written page (honestly, you just want to reach in and give him a good wallop).  Our young Tom, who has been given every privilege imaginable, is crass, spoiled, smug, selfish, ungrateful, untrustworthy, and cowardly.  If ever there was a character truly deserving of a comeuppance, it would be Tom.

Mark Twain was born in the slave state of Missouri and slavery was a central theme in his writings.  However, Pudd’nhead Wilson doesn’t focus so much on slavery as it does on two men and how their lives are ultimately determined by the cradle in which they sleep.  A simple switch and both lives are irrevocably changed forever.  One man is given everything only to squander it away while the other is given nothing, but makes the most of what little life has to offer.  Pudd’nhead Wilson is a commentary on grace versus greed, dignity versus disgrace, and affection versus apathy and Twain delivers it all masterfully.  But of course, Mark Twain would know a thing or two about fools.  After all, it was he who gave us the quote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”  Oh, if only Pudd’nhead had known.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com