The Human Comedy is one of the most popular California novels of all time. It has, I believe, remained in print since it was first published in 1943. A whopping 2,900 public libraries have copies. My book group read it in August -- and followed this month with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (2008), another novel featuring characters living in a small town. I wonder which view of life resonates more sharply with Americans today: Saroyan’s optimism in the face of world-wide catastrophe or Strout’s pessimism about the human condition generally.
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan. Harcourt, Brace (1943), 291 pp.
With World War II in full swing, fourteen-year-old Homer Macauley has landed a job delivering telegrams in his Central Valley town of Ithaca (think Fresno). The job gives him an entree into the lives of the other townfolk, especially those receiving word that a loved one has been killed in action. Homer’s father is dead and his older brother Marcus is in the Army. So Homer is providing needed income for his family -- his mother, his older sister Bess and his four-year-old brother Ulysses, who has many adventures of his own. As the story continues, additional characters round out a picture of Americans on the home front during the war.
Rather than adding my two-cents’ worth to the vast criticism of this book, I decided just to put down reactions of members of my book group, which read the novel last month. Here are some of their observations: Ithaca is meant to typify American communities. Its inhabitants, all of whom are fundamentally decent, represent a cross-section of Americans. The Macauley brothers act as participant observers, the ones most interested in ordinary people and daily events. The war hangs over everything. Although none of the characters seems to be following its progress, many have clear-headed ideas about its meaning. Saroyan’s simple prose enhances the ordinariness of the characters and their activities. The author’s intense humanism offers a plausible underpinning for a continuation of the war’s carnage and does not detract from the novel’s literary merit. Judging from the responses of the book group members, the novel retains its ability to capture the imagination of serious readers.