Homecoming by Jessamyn West, 1955
The magic trick:
Using cruel irony in the title
Here’s where things really get interesting in Jessamyn West Week on the SSMT site. Virtually nothing happened at all in the first two stories this week. They were classic observational slice of life pieces. Which is great if you like that kind of thing – and I do – but it maybe isn’t the most original or earth-shattering kind of fiction.
But, see, this is why West is such an oddball writer. She is capable of writing about all kinds of topics, characters and themes. Maybe it makes her less consistent or even less memorable than her contemporaries. But it also makes for an impressive body of work.
“Homecoming” is not a slice of life. It’s a slice of death, really. It deals with two men slowly dying of tuberculosis in a depressing, decrepit hospital. The language is great, and not in some showy, local color kind of way either. It’s just straightahead and kind of brutal. It reminds me a lot of a Raymond Carver story, actually.
The story appears to be a recounting one of the patient’s return home to see his wife. And it is that. But the irony is painful as it becomes clear that the titular homecoming more appropriately refers to his return home to the hospital. And that’s quite a trick on West’s part.
“No, I didn’t want to be back. Not then. This was the first moment I’d had with Nella. Sure, I was a dead beat, but have you forgotten how beautiful Nella is? She put on a kimono – long and soft, and pink. Not like these damned stiff white uniforms. Thin, you know. It was still blazing hot.”
“Mac, I’m not sure I like reunion scenes. Husband and wife together at last. So you took her in your arms. You’re done in, Mac. Why not cut it? Breakfast’s about due. What you need’s food, not confession.”
“I need to explain myself to myself. Why I’m back here. You don’t need to listen. No use telling you TB doesn’t make a female any less desirable.”
Hendricks watched Mac put his arm over his eyes. No use telling me, he thought. Makes you concupiscent as hell. Funny thing, for a disease to make you want what will kill you quickest. Nature double-crosses you every chance it gets. He regarded the boy with the pity of remembrance.
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