With its large type, wide margins, and black-and-white illustrations, The Human Comedy looks deceptively like a children’s book. It is really a novel about unimaginable horror.
Homer Macauley, 14, is big for his age and reliable, which is how he got his job as a telegraph messenger. With his older brother in the army, Homer is the wage-earner for a family of five.
Homer pedals his way into situations no 14-year-old is ready for. He delivers messages from the War Department telling mothers and wives their sons and husbands are never coming home again.
William Saroyan follows Homer around Ithaca, California, showing the hell war raises far from the battlefield on the telegraph operator who relays the messages, the younger sisters of missing men, the little brothers whose heroes will never play catch with them again.
The incidents of the novel are a wacky, believable mix of farce and tragedy. William Saroyan has a bad tendency to let his characters break out in lectures, but most of the the time his prose is pared down, painfully sweet, and poignantly sharp.
The Human Comedy is a tale that will linger at the edges of your memory for a long time to come.
The Human Comedy
By William Saroyan
Illustrated by Don Freeman
Harcourt, Brace, 1943
1943 bestseller #5
My grade: A-
In The Road Back, Erick Maria Remarque follows the remnant of a German platoon returning home after for years in the trenches of France. They expect life to be as they remember it from their school days.
Some things haven’t changed. Mothers still dote on sons. Father still expect obedience. School administrators still wave the flag and talk about the glory of dying for one’s country.
But much has changed. The poor are poorer, the war profiteers richer.
And the boys have changed. They each suffer what we today call post-traumatic stress. The only people they can trust to understand are their buddies from the trenches.
Several of the men can’t adjust to post-war life.
Two commit suicide.
One is committed to a mental institution.
One ends up in jail for assault.
Remarque’s soldiers rail against the society that turned them from idealists into angry, bitter men — and which is already preparing to send another generation into war. Remarque’s fiction rings with such truth the Nazis banned his work.
As horrific as their experience has been, these men do not evoke sympathy. By necessity, they have hardened themselves until they seem a species apart.
Remarque’s novel is not the least bit entertaining. That’s why it remains an engrossing and an important novel.
The Road Back
By Erick Maria Remarque
Trans. by A. W. Whreen
1931 bestseller #6
My grade: A
James Hilton’s bestseller Random Harvest is memorable only for its total absurdity.
Charles Ranier loses his memory and his dog tags in an explosion in the trenches of World War I. Repatriated to England, in the excitement of Armistice Day, Charles walks away from a hospital. A comedienne with an acting troupe befriends him. They marry, becoming “the Smiths,” since Charles can’t yet remember who he is.
In Liverpool for a job interview, Charles slips, hits his head, and loses his memory of everything between the battlefield and waking up in Liverpool.
Charles picks up his pre-war life. He runs the family businesses, takes a seat in Parliament, and makes a marriage of convenience with one of his firm’s secretaries — her idea, not his.
As the Germans invade Belgium 18 years later, he remembers the woman he loved before the Liverpool accident. Heedless of present wife and present responsibilities, he and rushes back to the spot where they first declared their love.
The characters are as absurd as the plot. There’s no reason a crank like Charles Ranier would inspire the devotion Hilton alleges.
If you like this book, you need a knock on the head.
by James Hilton
My Grade: C-