Let Us Now Praise William Saroyan

Appeared in Creative Loafing, January 6, 2012

William Saroyan as a young man

I’ve always enjoyed reading biographies of writers, which is probably why I’ve ended up writing them.

Back in my Indiana hometown recently, I made a trip to my favorite used bookstore, Caveat Emptor, in Bloomington. I didn’t know I was looking for a biography of William Saroyan, but I found it — thanks to the miracle of serendipity. God bless browsing.

A Daring Young Man is a decade old and is the work of John Leggett. He might be the guy who hooked me on literary biographies in the first place.

Years ago, he wrote Ross and Tom, a dual biography of two young writers killed by success. Ross Lockridge wrote Raintree County, then took himself out in the garage. Tom Heggen, who gave the world Mister Roberts, died of the deadly combination of too-many sleeping pills and a full bathtub.

I have long been haunted by that book, in part because Lockridge lived near us in Bloomington. He was a hometown boy who found success only to discover that the folks back home thought he wrote a dirty book.

The toast of New York

But it wasn’t Leggett’s name that drew me to A Daring Young Man, though seeing he was the author caused me to fork over the $15 for the gently used book.

It was Saroyan.

I had a long-distance phone-and-letter friendship with Saroyan near the end of his life.

In an earlier incarnation, I was an editor at a magazine. I often sat around with my boss and brainstormed about people we’d want to write for us. One day, I pulled “Saroyan” from my ether. He’d been a favorite of my father and I liked the stories of his that I’d read. My editor seemed surprised, since Saroyan was no longer fashionable, but said, “Go ahead. Can’t hurt to ask.”

So I wrote William Saroyan a letter and got a phone call in return.

At first, he seemed on edge. Why do you need new stories when you have so many of mine in your file?

I was baffled.

I sent stories. Long ago. Never got them back. He’d also written us many letters, none of which were answered.

Turns out he had, several generations of editors back. If we didn’t want to publish the stories, then we were morally obligated to return them.

Saroyan around the time we corresponded

I apologized profusely for the shovelhead who’d done my job some years before, then told Mr. Saroyan I’d do what I could. He was still full of huff and puff, but barked out his goodbyes. I told him I’d get right on it.

It took most of an afternoon, but I went through the dusty file cabinets in the archives, most of which had not been opened in more than a decade.

Eventually, I found them. Six stories in all, if memory serves. I mailed them off that afternoon, with a letter of apology.

A few days later, a different Saroyan called. Gone was the apocalyptic anger. Suddenly, I had a famous American writer effusively thanking me. I hadn’t felt ill of him because of his tirade the week before. Since I was at that moment trying my hand at selling short stories — and having some success — I felt that we had been so clearly in the wrong by not keeping up our part of the transaction between writer and market.

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He could’ve been about-damn-time curt with me, but he was not.

“So tell me about yourself,” he said. “Are you a writer?”

Me telling William Saroyan that I was a writer might be like a Little Leaguer telling Ted Williams, “Oh yeah, I play ball too.”

“I hope to be,” I told him.

Then began one of his stream-of-consciousness semi-poetic rants about writing and feeling and emotion and . . . and I wish I’d had a tape recorder then.

He kept me on the phone so long that I was late for a meeting. But I couldn’t very well cut him off. He was William Saroyan. My late father had a dozen Saroyan books, and had been reading him since he was in high school. How much I wished I could have gone home to tell him: “Dad, guess who I talked to today.” He’d been dead only a year and I was not yet over the feeling that I could still share with him.

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Saroyan ended the call by saying he had some new stories, some stories that might be right for us. “If I send them, you promise they won’t get lost?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of them.”

He sent a couple of manuscripts by the end of the week. They were well thumbed copies, the ink smudged by handling at no doubt larger and more selective magazines.

Though my boss was not thrilled with the stories, I argued for them and won.

I remember the folly of trying to tell Saroyan to make a change. One of the stories we bought was entirely dialogue. Since this called for open-quote close-quote in every paragraph, I suggested we just show the change of speakers by alternating from Roman to Italic text. There was a long pause on the phone, probably as he swallowed a couple of insults welling up for the pipsqueak on the other end.

“Let’s just leave it as it is, OK?”

Said nicely.

He called regularly, even when we didn’t have any editing to do. He wanted to know if I was married. He wanted to know whose writing I most admired. He wanted to know my plans for my life.

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He sent me a hardcover of The Human Comedy, inscribed: “To say you are a rare editor (you answer letters) and I have got to be grateful (you found lost stories) and to wish you greater and greater days ahead (you will gather a grand past), I must make it Bill Saroyan.” He dated it January 24, 1976, and indicated he was in “Ithaca,” his fictional stand-in for his hometown of Fresno.

We published a few of his stories, but finally my editor overruled me on one and I had to break the news to Saroyan. Coward that I was, I did so via mail.

“Mr. Saroyan’s on the phone for you,” I heard a few days later.

I picked up, expecting the worst.

“Hey, Bill — don’t worry.” Here he was, calling to console me. I’d been so demonstrative in my letter of apology that he overcame his anger at the magazine to reassure me that the rejection had nothing to do with us.

I left the magazine soon after and went to graduate school for a vacation. I freelanced for a couple of small publications and reviewed his then-new book, Sons Come and Go. I sent him a copy of the piece and got a postcard back: “Thanks. Hope you are doing OK. Live well! Bill.” And that was it.

A few years later, I read in the newspaper that he died.

I had collected several of his books, loving The Human Comedy (and being startled that he’d signed his name again at the end of the book, in pride of authorship) and especially his short stories: those in My Name is Aram, and his classics, such as “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” I never saw any of his famous plays, but did read the script of The Time of Your Life, for which he famously refused the Pulitzer Prize.

My sense was that, having caught him near the end of his life, he was reaching out to anyone who would listen, and I was a willing disciple.

Leggett’s book shows clearly how Saroyan’s youthful energy and confidence could intoxicate, then repel. He had an amazing capacity for joy and was compulsive about writing. It’s astonishing to realize just how much Saroyan got done. For anyone who’s spent time in the lonely trade, it’s hard enough to write one good thing now and then. Not everything Saroyan wrote was brilliant (no matter what he might have thought), but his yield was higher than most.

Reading Leggett’s book shows how quickly Saroyan’s energy could burn out his friendships. He began his publishing career when Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House, published the story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Just as that book was riding high, Saroyan brought Cerf another story collection. And then another. Finally, when Saroyan wouldn’t listen to Cerf’s wise counsel about saturating the market, Saroyan found another publisher.

A very young Saroyan, home in Fresno

He conquered literature, drama and film (he won an Oscar for his Human Comedy screenplay). He also wrote a Top 10 song — “Come On-A My House,” recorded by Rosemary Clooney. He married (twice!) one of the most sought-after women of mid-century, Carol Marcus. He made thousands of friends, and seemed to have lost just as many. He was proud of his Armenian heritage and when he died, his ashes were planted both in his American home of Fresno, and in a place of honor in Armenia.

I’m not sure his name resonates much today. When I mention it to the serious literati in my life, they roll their eyes. The general knock against him is his sentimentality. Yet it’s hard not to be moved by the energy and ethusiasm of his work, even in this jaded kardashianed world. (Wonder how he would have felt about his fellow Armenians, the Kardashians, and their celebrity-without-reason. My belief is that, ethnic kinship aside, they would make him puke.)

Few writers celebrated the joys and mysteries of life better than Saroyan. Few days have passed in the years since I first read the opening of The Human Comedy, that I haven’t thought about the scene at the dawn of the book. The whole of the first chapter is devoted to a small boy’s wonder as he watches a train pass, and finds a hobo on the last freight car. The hobo sees the boy, and smiles, calling, “Goin’ home, Boy!”

That celebration of a small moment appears to me frequently. Maybe I’m a sentimentalist at heart. Maybe I’m just a sucker for things that make me feel.

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Even at the end, in his books and in his conversations with young people — and I was young then — he never lost his enthusiasm and the joy he found in life.

“In the time of your life, live,” he wrote in the prologue to his greatest play. “In that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart. Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand . . . In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

How tragic that such “sentiment” has fallen out of fashion.