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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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.