The crucial action of “Death of a Traveling Salesman” takes place in the mind of the protagonist, a shoe company representative, in the last hours of his life. Feverish and weak, R. J. Bowman has sought shelter in the home of a simple country couple. His initial misperceptions about them eventually give way to a recognition that they possess some vital knowledge about life, knowledge that he has been denied.
Bowman has been a traveling salesperson for fourteen years, living alone in hotels as he drives from one city to the next with his sample case of shoes. As the story begins, he has recently recovered from a serious case of influenza, during which he was cared for by a hotel doctor and a trained nurse. Although he had believed himself to be cured, Bowman finds himself oddly tired and anxious during his first day back at work. By midday, he has lost his accustomed road, and finds to his horror that he has driven his car to the edge of a ravine. He is able to get out before the car topples over. To his surprise, the car does not crash but is caught by a tangle of vine leaves and sinks to the ground unharmed.
As Bowman begins to walk toward the only house in view, he feels his heart beat rapidly and wildly, so much so that he has difficulty thinking or speaking. He feels better after he has entered the house and has been seated in the cool living room. He finds himself uneasy, however, with the taciturn woman of the house. She is a big woman, still and slow-moving; Bowman estimates her age to be about fifty. He is relieved when she refers to Sonny, who...
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