A Passage About Death From A William Saroyan Book

William Saroyan won a Pulitzer Prize for the play, The Time of Your Life, in 1940. Also well known for his famous short story “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” the short novel The Human Comedy was made into a movie (1943, Academy Award for Best Story), starring Mickey Rooney, with appearances by Van Johnson, Donna Reed and Robert Mitchum. It was remade with Meg Ryan as director, in 2014, with her as Homer’s mother, and Sam Shepard as the only other recognizable name, (Okay, and Tom Hanks who appears a couple of times as Mrs. McCauley’s (Ryan’s) dead husband) as the others are newcomers, except for Jack Quaid, who is Ryan’s and divorced husband Dennis Quaid’s son. The remake received so-so reviews. Enough Hollywood background??

Well, alrighty then. You have a little history of the author and a little history of the book turned screenplay. Now you need a little of the setting. Isn’t this scrumptious? Just like story telling hour.

From William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy (1943), this is just one of about a half-dozen passages in this book that have made an impression on me. For obvious reasons, this one touches me, and probably always will. I wanted to share it’s simplicity, and yet it’s profoundness as well. And, this is towards the end of the book, the very end, last few pages, so if you think you may read this book, I hate to spoil it for you, but it really is not a complete surprise, as you are sort of expecting this will happen even though you are hoping it would not.

Okay, the setting, a little background to this scene. Saroyan grew up in Fresno, California. But, the book takes place in a fictional town in California named Ithaca and is about Homer’s seeing the world as an adult for the first time. After finding out from a telegram that came in at the telegraph office where Homer, age 14, has worked for the last six months as a messenger delivering telegrams (learning about life and death as some of the telegrams are about townspeople who have died in the war) his brother Marcus has been killed in the war (WWII)…Homer says to Spangler, the manager of the telegraph office where Homer works:

“What shall I do? What am I going to tell them? They’re waiting for me at home now. I know they are. I told them I’d be home for supper. How am I going to go into the house and look at them? They’ll know everything the minute they see me. I don’t want to tell them, but I know they’ll know.”

Spangler put his arm around Homer. “Wait,” he said. “Don’t go home just yet. Sit down here. Wait awhile. It takes a little time.”

They sat quietly on a park bench, not talking. After a while Homer said, “What am I waiting for?”

“Well,” Spangler said, “you’re waiting for the part of him that died to die in you, too—the part that’s only flesh—the part that comes and goes. That dying is hurting you now, but wait awhile. When the pain becomes death and leaves you, the rest will be lighter and better than ever. It takes a little time, and as long as you live it will take a little time, again and again, but each time it goes it will leave you closer than ever to the best that is in all men. Be patient with it, you will go home at last with no death in you. Give it time to go. I’ll sit with you here until it’s gone.”

“Yes, sir,” Homer said. The manager of the telegraph office and the messenger sat in the courthouse park of Ithaca, waiting.

Neal Klein
Life After Emilee, on the loss of my wife to pancreatic cancer. I’m not accepting comments right now but please feel free to get in touch via my Contact page.