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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Leaving space between the words

I’ve been rereading the novel that turned me on to writing, in ninth grade. It’s The Human Comedy, a 1943 book about wartime life in a town in California that centers on the adventures of twelve-year-old Homer, a messenger boy for the Postal Telegraph who must deliver to parents the telegrams of death from the War Department, and his four-year-old brother Ulysses, who watches and appreciates everything.

Saroyan wrote in a liberating way that carried original energy. He called it jumping into the river and starting to swim, and he opened me up to what writing could do. And his work was simple, simple, simple: there was space between the words.

I was a gawky unpopular kid who liked to read, and that year I swallowed everything that I could find by Saroyan — especially My Name Is Aram, his 1940 volume of gracefully lucid stories about growing up Armenian in Fresno, his home town that became the model for Ithaca in The Human Comedy. I took in the plain, humane clarity in these stories and thought, “I can do that!” But Saroyan’s simplicity is as deceptive as a great outfielder’s; it looks easy until you try it. Yet the writer left so much in the space between his words, so much to feel and connect with, that I’ve kept on trying to do it ever since.

I read both those books again this week, and Saroyan isn’t always perfect. He couldn’t work with editors, and The Human Comedy loses air in bursts of windy philosophizing that should have been trimmed back — but then consider this. It’s possibly the writer’s greatest sentence, from the opening chapter of The Human Comedy, describing how Ulysses finds an egg:

He looked at it a moment, picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell.

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