The Magazine

Saroyan Turns 100

The writer who asked, What does it mean to be alive?

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By ANN STAPLETON
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"I  do not know what makes a writer, but it is probably not happiness," wrote the Fresno-born Armenian-American author and playwright William Saroyan, who died in 1981.

His father, a failed poet, died of appendicitis when Saroyan was barely three years old. His mother put her four children into Oakland's Fred Finch Orphanage and took on work as a domestic, hoping to reunite the family one day. She would eventually succeed, but the process would take five years. Meanwhile, Saroyan was consigned to the small boys' ward, where he fell asleep every night to the sounds of bereft boys rocking themselves and weeping.

As Saroyan's son Aram noted in Last Rites, about his difficult relationship with his father, whereas most of us come to a first perception of the world with a mother and father acting as a buffer between ourselves and death, Saroyan's "own link hooked up at the very moment of the dawning of his rational consciousness not with father, or mother--but with Death itself." He was "hooked into the abyss at both ends."

Afflicted with the lifelong emotional effects of his childhood experiences, and an acute anti-authority complex, Saroyan often found the intricacies of human relationships painful and mystifying. According to John Leggett, the biographical author of A Daring Young Man, it was the "Saroyan social paradox, that he could fill a room with bonhomie, but people were no more real to him than characters in a dream."

He quarreled with or disappointed almost everyone who ever tried to befriend him, including Random House's Bennett Cerf, MGM's Louis B. Mayer, and Darryl F. Zanuck, founder of Twentieth Century Fox. He told Lillian Hellman that her plays could use some songs to liven them up, and then proceeded to sing her some possibilities. James Mason once slapped him for talking nonstop at a premiere. And in a retaliatory piece for Esquire, Ernest Hemingway, annoyed over a short story that seemed to mock his work, told Saroyan he wasn't "that bright" and that he should "watch" himself.

"Do I make myself clear," he added, "or would you like me to push your puss in?"

Even Saroyan's lifelong best friend, his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, became suspect. While on a boisterous cross-country road trip in a new Buick paid for with money from Saroyan's first Broadway success, the two of them put lyrics to old Armenian folk tunes and came up with the song "Come On-A My House (I'm Gonna Give You Candy)," which would become a hit for Rosemary Clooney. But Saroyan, saddled in later years with heavy gambling debts, found it impossible to forgive Bagdasarian's only crime: becoming set for life by creating the novelty recording act, The Chipmunks.

Saroyan was unhappily married, once for six years and a second time for a disastrous six months, to the sweet-spirited blonde socialite Carol Marcus, the inspiration for Holly Golightly in her childhood friend Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, lifelong friend to Gloria Vanderbilt and Oona O'Neill, and whose letters from beau "Jerry" (J.D. Salinger, as it turned out) Carol once plagiarized in an attempt to write entertainingly to Saroyan. Courted by Orson Welles, Mel Ferrer, Clifford Odets, Al Capp, and Marlon Brando, among others, she eventually settled into a marriage of over 40 years' duration with Walter Matthau, but Saroyan continued to rave about her and love her from a distance until death intervened.

A self-described "estranged man" ("I am little comfort to myself, though I am the only comfort I have"), Saroyan lost touch with his children Aram and Lucy--though when they learned of his final illness, they effected a tender reconciliation. But if temperament and early loss conspired to deprive Saroyan of a fulfilling personal life, in his writing he was determined, like his character who planted pomegranate trees in the desert, "to make a garden of this awful desolation."

Saroyan was a writing machine and fearless genre-hopper, achieving major successes in the short story (The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), the novel (The Human Comedy and My Name Is Aram, the Armenian-American Huck Finn), and the autobiography (The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, Not Dying, and others). And alongside Eugene O'Neill and Thornton Wilder he helped to found a truly American theater, with My Heart's in the Highlands and The Time of Your Life--for which he declined the Pulitzer Prize, on the grounds that institutions and the arts don't mix.

Prizing spontaneity and distrustful of too much revision, he wrote swiftly: two stories in a day, a play in one week, and once, three books in a month. The man who could consume an entire watermelon at one sitting lived to write, and wrote voraciously, "to save [his] life." He wanted to learn to write the way the snow was falling on the streets of New York, "the finest style" he'd ever seen, and the best of his work comes closer than the efforts of any other American writer to evoking the strange improvisational genius, the exuberance and despair, at the heart of an ordinary, lived life on earth.

In Obituaries, the last book he published in his lifetime, Saroyan expresses fascination with "a strange man in New York in the late thirties who at the opening of the opera season would go into the lobby with all of the rich and social people and suddenly stand on his head while the cameras flashed." The next day the newspapers would show the man, a kind of innocent who appeared to have no profit motive for his behavior, "standing on his head surrounded by astonished dowagers and dandies." Saroyan is very much the headstand-man of American letters, reminding us to discard the dark-suited formalities that deaden our responses to the world and invite the life force in.

"I am not afraid to make a fool of myself," Saroyan insisted, and this headlong audacity shows itself not only in his ahead-of-their-time, tenderly ranting, dark-adapted experimental stories, but also in his daredevil choice of subjects familiarly symbolic and emotion-laden and dear to the human imagination, and then breaking the seal of our accustomed blindness to expose the original depth and eccentricity, the brief, strong flash of light, beneath.

A case in point is his short story "The Hummingbird That Lived Through Winter," in which an elderly blind man and a young boy revive, with a teaspoonful of warmed honey, an ailing hummingbird trapped in the wrong season. The tale is life-affirming, yes, but only in a narrowly qualified way that depends heavily for its impact on the hovering presence of death. Like the unnerving background sound of the demolition crew coming closer and closer in his play The Cave Dwellers, in Saroyan, the knowledge that things end is never very far away.

The two figures and the tiny flicker of intensity that is the hummingbird are made present to us for only a moment within a minor bubble of daylight poised against the blackness of eternity. It is winter to which the bird must return. The man is aged and mortal. And the boy, too, must choose to act blindly, without ever knowing whether his love will save anything at all.

Yet life relentlessly presents itself to us, here in the form of "this wonderful little creature of the summertime," dying "in the big rough hand of the old peasant" who, in his blindness, must ask the boy just learning to discern the world, "What is this in my hand?" As we, too, look down into the tender but only temporary nest the old man's palm makes of itself in the air, Saroyan forces us to see the imperiled being there, "not suspended in a shaft of summer light," and "not the most alive thing in the world" anymore, but "the most helpless and heartbreaking."

In the wild throbbing of this smallest heart, we can feel our own pulse beat, and by extension, the whole world's. What is this thing called life? How can it possibly be? And knowing it will someday perish, what do we do with it now? Despite all our helplessness, so much of the world is left up to us. A terrifying responsibility, in its way, about which Saroyan is wholly unsentimental, yet wholly encouraging: We must live.

When the boy later asks the old man whether their hummingbird survived the winter, his answer is the only one he can give: That the hummingbirds the boy watches in the summer air are the one they saved.

"Each of them is our bird. Each of them, each of them," he said swiftly and gently.

In "Why I Write," Saroyan clearly lays out this notion of immortality: "One of a kind couldn't stay, and couldn't apparently be made to." But "something did stay, something was constant, or appeared to be. It was the kind that stayed." For Saroyan, the only thing that can "halt the action" of our disappearance is art, "the putting of limits upon the limitless, and thereby holding something fast and making it seem constant, indestructible, unstoppable, unkillable, deathless." By abetting the escape of the hummingbird into the imagination of the reader, Saroyan wins the little hand-to-hand combat with death which is this story. He knew that we need such victories to help us bear our lives.

The Swiss critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel wrote that dreams are a "semi-deliverance from the human prison," a concept Saroyan takes as a given. In The Time of Your Life, he describes the character Joe as actually "holding the dream," not a sentimentality at all, but a tip of the hat to the iron reality of our inner lives.

Harry the Hoofer, played by the young Gene Kelly on Broadway, sees that "the world is sorrowful" and "needs laughter," which he dreams of providing by means of his awkward, decidedly unfunny, desperate dance that never stops. The sad clown Harry, whose "pants are a little too large," whose coat is "loose" and "doesn't match," is the perfect type of modern man:

He comes in timidly, turning about uncertainly, awkward, out of place everywhere, embarrassed and encumbered by the contemporary costume, sick at heart, but determined to fit in somewhere. His arrival constitutes a dance.

Harry fails to make the world laugh; his dream goes unrealized. Yet his blundering movements make the audience want to weep in recognition of their own inelegant lives, their own ungraceful losses. The vividness of their own dreams makes Harry real.

When Saroyan's mother left him at the orphanage, she distracted him with a little windup toy, a dancing black minstrel that made him stop crying. Years after he wrote The Time of Your Life, Saroyan would realize that Harry the Hoofer was that toy brought to life. It is the genius of Saroyan that the sight of Harry dancing, the very image of ceaseless exuberance, evokes pity and grief in the onlooker, that the very thing meant to stop our crying is what allows us to weep for ourselves and for each other, for the thing we have lost forever and for all we will never find.

Don't Go Away Mad, dedicated to his son Aram and infused with the grief and rage of Saroyan's divorce and the loss of his children, is an excruciatingly dark, inverted morality play about hospital patients waiting to die, reading a dictionary aloud as their collective last act, and as Saroyan must have been at the time of his writing, desperately trying to wring some meaning and hope from the words.

A character called Greedy Reed, glad his abdomen--he reads the word from the dictionary--is still intact, unlike that of poor Andy Boy (another patient for whom Reed, in his belatedly discovered humanity, prays), considers what he is up against:

I been thinking all my life black the trouble with me, but black ain't the trouble with me at all. Lots of good men black. Lots of good men white, red, or some other color. Color ain't the trouble with me or anybody else. Something else the trouble with me. Who fool around with me this way all the time, make me carry on? Who make me ornery? Who make me proud of my abdomen right here in this sad place, at this sad time, Poseyo?

The image of the ignorant, abdomen-proud man seeking the source of all human dissatisfaction, anticipating his own imminent death even as he tries, so late, to find a reason to live, is ludicrous and poignant and passing strange, and a crystal-clear mirror Saroyan holds up to each face in the audience: "You are still alive, my friend. In the time of your life, live!" The entwisted particularity and universality of the image, in service to a truly desperate affirmation of this life (as Saroyan said of his writing) "is careless .  .  . but something that is good, that is [his] alone, that no other writer could ever achieve."

In Don't Go Away Mad, life and hope and belief are redeemed by way of a murder, as if Christ, instead of dying on the Cross, had gone out and killed for our sins. But as genuinely dark as the piece may be, in its preface Saroyan makes a stand for the real truth of any life, and for an art that reflects the reality of the psyche's insistent, if roundabout, tendency toward its own continued existence:

Despair overwhelms everybody, but for how long? If it is for an instant now and then, if it is for years now and then, for centuries now and then, the fact remains that despair is never by itself all of the story whether in an individual or in an entire people; despair may dominate, it may qualify and color everything else, but everything else is also always there; and it would be inaccurate, though it would make for easier playwriting, to pretend that this were not so.

This is the statement of a realist. The sun does shine: not every hour, not even every day, but often enough. The most cynical of men looks upon his own child's face and is changed by what it believes of him. A middle-aged couple kisses, surprised to find themselves, after so many years, in love. Someone somewhere peers into the abyss and roars with laughter. Life goes on. And Saroyan the headstand-man reminds us to "try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all [our] might," for the simple reason that we "will be dead soon enough."

It is this knowledge that death will one day take away everything that makes Saroyan a fine, acute poet of yearning. In his flawless story "Five Ripe Pears," a young boy cuts class to go and pluck, in their moment of perfect unstayable ripeness, the pears he has been so intently willing into their existence that they seem to him, by virtue of his love for them, to be rightfully his:

Running to pears as a boy of six is any number of classically beautiful things: music and poetry and maybe war. I reached the trees breathless but alert and smiling. The pears were fat and ready for eating, and for plucking from limbs. They were ready. The sun was warm. The moment was a moment of numerous clarities, air, body, and mind.

"I wanted wanting and getting, and I invented means," says the narrator. But of course, the act of concourse that takes place where pear and daylight and the boy's yearning inexorably come together--that unstoppable blossoming of the world in the light of human attention--is untranslatable, and therefore incommunicable; and in it, Saroyan accesses the intractable loneliness borne at one time or another by every human being. The boy can expect no understanding from anyone; he is branded a thief and receives a "sound licking with a leather strap" for he possesses no language in which to mount a defense of beauty's power and our helplessness before it:

A tragic misfortune of youth is that it is speechless when it has the most to say, and a sadness of maturity is that it is garrulous when it has forgotten where to begin and what language to use. Oh, we have been well-educated in error, all right. We at least know that we have -forgotten.

"I know I was deeply sincere about wanting the ripe pears, and I know I was determined to get them, and to remain innocent," says the boy, and in that last phrase lies the unassuming power of Saroyan's writing. He knew firsthand that "people ain't necessarily the same in the evening as they were in the morning." But regardless of his characters' circumstances or their actions, for him, they remained innocent: "If nothing else, drawing into the edge of full death every person is restored to innocence--to have lived was not his fault."

Wayworn wings. A toy to stop you from crying. Pears. A word that might explain everything. In William Saroyan, it is not that you can keep the thing you love from disappearing in the distance, or that the heart in each of us does not break to watch it go. It is not that you will never die. But that, "in the time of your life," you must find a way to live, an imperative both metaphysical and urgently practical that none of us escapes. And that is the why of it, the reason to read Saroyan, to read for the reason he said he wrote: "To go on living."

To be pointed back toward the strange, once-in-every-lifetime miracle of your own being, while you are still here, "still the brave man or woman or child of the age, still famous for your breathing uninterruptedly." To keep dancing like Harry the Hoofer, even in expectation of the inevitable cessation of all movement. "It's a goofy dance," done "with great sorrow, but much energy." But, as Saroyan wrote, "What a thing it is to be alive."

Ann Stapleton is a writer in Ohio.