ESSAY: ON THE WRITER WILLIAM SAROYAN
San Francisco Chronicle
Aug 1 2008
Evidently pilfered from his house after his death, a broken cardboard
box labeled WM SAROYAN, MAN, sat on a shelf in a used bookshop in
San Francisco. It was a photocopy of the unpublished manuscript of
"More Obituaries," the book Saroyan was writing as he was dying.
The bookseller said, "Ten bucks OK with you? Anything else here catch
Saroyan’s voice My sixth-grade English teacher in Lakewood, Ohio, put
her nicotine-stained fingers on my shoulder at the drinking fountain
and said (a) my composition would have gotten a top grade, but the word
"grewsome" should be spelled "gruesome," and (b) I really ought to
read a certain story about a starving writer in San Francisco. "The
Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" was written by a handsome,
dark-haired young Armenian. I, too, might someday become a starving,
dark-haired young writer in San Francisco, even without being handsome
Saroyan’s voice, insistent, overflowing with humor, overcoming
melancholy, wielding the American language with the freedom of a
boy abandoned to a home for orphans, who read merely everything,
listened to the babble of voices in Fresno and San Francisco, in the
fields and barbershops, the streets, taverns and short-order joints,
fully intended to take charge of his world, which was the only world
that mattered. He would make it matter to all within earshot. Like
Mark Twain and Henry Miller, he was an American sport, hiding the
necessary suspicion of monstrousness under his yelling love and
optimism. He was merry and bright. Life handed him deep griefs,
as it does to most of us.
I didn’t see all that at age 12. I grew some.
Meet and greet More than a few years later, in the ’60s, I found myself
a writer in San Francisco, but had not yet succeeded in starving, darn
it. One afternoon I was brooding alone in the San Francisco Museum
of Art, then still in the Veterans Memorial Building on Van Ness,
when I heard a voice booming, saw that strong-featured, heavy Armenian
face, now with a bristling mustache, lecturing two children about the
meaning of the paintings nearby, and incidentally also lecturing –
hectoring, nagging, informing, bragging – about the meaning of life
and their proper place in the world. The children were his son and
daughter. The rich baritone was that of a Personage, a father, a man
speaking from the depths of imperativeness and soul.
"Mr. Saroyan, I presume."
He may have been pleased to find an admirer here on a gray weekday
afternoon. It’s not unusual for writers to be pleased to meet
admirers. The son, Aram, and the daughter, Lucy, were happy to have
the meaning of life interrupted for ice cream and cookies.
Somehow, lonely William Saroyan, adrift after a bitter pair of divorces
from the same woman, and idle Herbert Gold, also divorced with two
children, new to San Francisco on a gray November day, became instant
co-conspirators. He didn’t mind my telling him that the teacher with
the nicotine-stained fingers had both sent me to his first stories and
also initiated my closest friend into sex. I got the best of the deal,
although my friend got the bragging rights.
I asked Bill if he might like to spend an evening with a pair of
adventurous Mills College girls. (We were younger then; in 1961,
people still called young women "girls.") For once, he was at a loss
for words – for about five seconds; and then: "When?"
The young women arrived at my flat (also known as a beatnik pad). I lit
the kindling in my fireplace. Bill lumbered up the stairs. I opened the
door and the draft sent the fire leaping out into the room. Bill said,
"The tiger is in the fireplace!" and we all sootily pushed flames
back where they belonged.
Then he took a sharp look at the young women, literature majors
at a college for sometimes well-behaved daughters, and instantly
transformed himself from a beaky Armenian eagle into a nurturing
Armenian uncle. We walked down Russian Hill to North Beach, a
family-style Basque dinner at the Hotel du Midi, a lecture about
the history of the International Settlement and the Barbary Coast,
a reminiscence about his days as a telegraph messenger boy. He was
sending us swift spiritual telegrams: Let me be your guide. He seemed
deeply shocked that we hadn’t yet attended to Turk Murphy and his
Dixieland band, so a visit to Earthquake McGoon’s was next on the
program. In the time of your life, live. That was an order.
The evening ended late. And then we all swore a solemn oath to meet
again as soon as possible.
My woman friend’s roommate still regrets, nearly 50 years later, that
all she got from William Saroyan was laughter, literature, history,
undying memories. OK, there was a touch of romance, but nothing that
called for the early-’60s cream and diaphragm, which she confesses
having tucked into her purse.
Discovering that Saroyan badly needed money in those days, after his
bouts of divorce, gambling ("It isn’t gambling if you win," he said),
drinking and neglect of the income tax laws, I invited him to dinner
at the Brighton Express in North Beach, along with Mark Schorer,
chairman of the English department at UC Berkeley. Bill was likely to
charm Professor Schorer, and he did. He improvised a play, casting the
people in the little restaurant. He invaded the kitchen to interview
the Japanese American cook as the ingenue love interest. He decided
God should be played by a horse, the only actor not on the premises.
Schorer offered a large lecture fee and pulled out his notebook to
schedule it. Saroyan was enthusiastic. Schorer proposed a date. Bill
wasn’t sure he would be available. Mark asked him to name another
date. Bill gave the matter some deep thought, and wondered if God
absolutely needed to be played by a horse. "A lecture," Mark reminded
him. "When? I need to schedule and request the funds."
"Tell you what, Mark," Bill said. "I might be driving west from New
York, on my way back from Paris because the melons are in season in
Fresno, and I’ll send you a postcard and say I’m on my way."
"No, that won’t work. We need to schedule in advance."
"It’ll work fine, Mark. I’ll say, ‘Hey Mark, how about next
Saroyan shrugged. He thought hard. "You think we can get a horse to
behave like God, or do we have to dress up a couple of my cousins
Again my matchmaking was fruitless. But Bill managed to take a
gig at Purdue University, which didn’t require finicky advance
planning. Instead of lecturing, he directed an improvised play with
students he enlisted on the spot. It was West Lafayette, Ind.’s,
finest theatrical experience of the year. In the off-Indianapolis
The opposite of smart Herbert Gold, trying to make polite conversation
with a not-brilliant Armenian young woman: "Is it true, as someone
said, that William Saroyan is the most famous Armenian who ever lived?"
Not-brilliant Armenian young woman, after careful consideration:
"I think that’s because he’s well-known."
Americans in Paris In Paris, a French publisher with a fine Left
Bank house and a cook – assets more common among publishers than
among writers – suggested that I invite some Americans-in-Paris to
dinner. I thought of Mary McCarthy, the tight-lipped wit, and Saroyan,
the loose-lipped jokester. There were only two problems. McCarthy said,
"He doesn’t like me." Saroyan said, "She hates me."
"Come anyway," I said. "Good chow."
It sounded like a normal Paris dinner party. Unfortunately, Bill
arrived four hours early, announcing that he had changed his mind
about dinner, but we could go for a walk instead. We strolled to
George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop, looked for Bill’s
books and mine, scheduled a reading for Bill at some Sunday yet to be
determined. Then, for variety, we visited another bookshop. The statue
of Diderot poking his finger at the church of St. Germain des Pres. A
beer at Brasserie Lipp. A sit in the little garden of the Russian
church at the corner of the Boulevard St. Germain and the Rue des
Saints Pères. A few complaints about ex-wives. A discussion of the
melons that grow near Fresno and the red wine and cheese that grow
all over Paris. … Bill decided to walk me back to the publisher’s
house. He entered. He smelled the cooking in progress.
He didn’t ask permission to visit the kitchen and lift the tops of
the pots, peer within, sniff approvingly. "Maybe I’ll have dinner,"
he said. A great writer has the right to change his mind. Tolstoy,
Herman Melville and Ross Bagdasarian were known to have done so. What
is hatred between two writers at opposite ends of the literary
spectrum compared with a fine meal of lamb, couscous, haricots verts
and beverages not easily available in Fresno, although the best melons
McCarthy arrived, a bit bustling and nervous. I, too, had enjoyed a
quarrel with her, although since then we had danced and made up. Even
Bill seemed edgy.
So he began to talk. His voice was booming, rich and cadenced. His
stories, recounted in long, loping run-on sentences, filled with melon
juice and red wine, love of family and gaiety about disaster, sometimes
ended with his personal version of Samuel Beckett’s despair. "It’s
terrible. It’s OK. It’s verrry interesting."
His partial deafness did not prevent his noticing Mary’s laughter. Once
she clapped her hands with glee, like Alice in Wonderland, although
an Alice-Mary with a mouth full of sharkish teeth. She was happy. The
publisher and I were happy. Bill was happy. Dissatisfied with his
children, exasperated by the rhythm of his decline on the literary
stock exchange, where fickleness of esteem competes with irrelevance
of opinion, lonely without a lover, aging, sometimes weary, his heart
was still in the highlands.
Mary stayed until 1 a.m. After she left, Bill stayed for another
nightcap, then a post-nightcap nightcap, and rolled down the stairs
prudently before dawn. It had turned out to be a perfect evening. All
I needed for breakfast was a container of plain yogurt and two aspirin.
Bill decided not to do the reading at Shakespeare & Company, but then
showed up anyway and did a reading. I’m not sure if McCarthy attended.
An Armenian in Fresno Passionate living is not easy living. The stress
of being a long-term effervescent boy was wearing the man down. I
decided to take my son Ari, age 9, to visit Saroyan in Fresno; and if
he was too tired to see us, we’d just visit an Armenian restaurant,
buy a few melons, take sightseeing walks among microwaved burritos,
practice breathing the smog of California’s Central Valley. But Bill
said come on, come on, come onna my house. This was the refrain of a
traditional folk song he had adapted with his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian.
We went onna his house. He showed Ari his manual typewriter, his long
legal-sized sheets of manuscript, his rock collection, his sketches,
and lectured him about the duties and glory of being a writer. He
asked Ari about his family heritage, Jewish and WASP, and suggested
that his own children also had a verrry interesting bloodline,
Armenian and Jewish. "But everyone has a verrry interesting bloodline!"
Then he heard from Ari that there was a twin brother. "Verrry
interesting!" he proclaimed, and announced that he would
visit San Francisco soon to meet the verrry interesting
brother-younger-by-five-minutes. A photograph shows Bill, Ari, Ethan
and Herb, poking our heads through the sunroof of my battered Fiat.
One of Bill’s complaints about his beloved, hated,
twice-married-to-him, twice-divorced wife, Carol, was that she was an
addict of the social ramble: too much drinking, too much partying, and
therefore the next morning he couldn’t write enough good words. Then
followed another evening, another party, and consequently not enough
words, even if they were good ones. And then another, and maybe only
one or two hundred good words. "But they were good words! But only
a hundred good words," he roared. "That’s not enough!"
In his last weeks, he was still writing. Dying of prostate cancer, he
would need to be rushed to the hospital to be catheterized. And then,
relieved, he would come back home to finish the day’s writing. Bladder
wrecked, he was still the soulful singer of his undaunted songs of
yearning. The words in the manuscript of "More Obituaries," labeled
man, which I found in that used bookstore, were still warm-hearted,
questing, generous, boiling with life, the death-defying rushing song
of the old man still soaring and plunging on his flying trapeze.
A metabolic joy in survival There are peaks and valleys in every
writing writer’s work. Saroyan was one of the writingest of writers. In
his massive oeuvre, there are times when he is merely poking and
prodding his voice. But when he finds it, there are high moments
of humor, generosity, vivid storytelling, evocations of pain and
pleasure. For example, his shame and grief over a troubled relationship
with his son can touch any parent; his transparent rage at his wife
and at himself in connection with her should evoke fellow feeling in
all who know that the path of spousedom is a rocky one.
For me, three short pages, Chapter 106, of one of his late books,
"Obituaries," the rhythm, sly humor and shrugged-off grief, the sad
recapitulation of the pleasures of simple existence, the exalted
awareness of mortality, an offhand but measured conviction of moral
responsibility are a peak of Saroyan’s long meditation on the sense
and responsibility of life. These three pages, which I’ve sometimes
read aloud to would-be writers, remind me of "Euthyphro," Plato’s
dialogue on the responsibility of fathers and sons – but with Saroyan’s
unique, wise-ass sideswipes at the whole deal. "Reader, take my advice,
don’t die, just don’t die, that’s all, it doesn’t pay."
After evoking the sourdough bread and the tea and the good sweet
butter, which are some of the good reasons for avoiding death, he
ambles to the point: His friend Johnny Mercer was a great songwriter,
a singer of them, a wealthy man – but what was really important
about him was that, after his father died, Mercer paid his father’s
debts. "A great living member of the human race died, and he is gone,
and don’t you do it -"
Reader, read this chapter aloud. It is full of fun and grief, tricks
and utter sincerity. Beyond the words, Saroyan’s sentence rhythms
play like great music. If you have tears available, they will flow.
Elsewhere, not very far away, out of the same mellow, insistent,
swift American voice, you will find occasions for laughter. Living
through deep and permanent injuries, but supported by a metabolic joy
in survival, Saroyan spun like a gyroscope to the edge of the earth;
and discovering that the world is not flat and he wouldn’t fall off,
despite so much adverse opinion, he danced himself back into the
crowded carnival midway that is human life.
San Francisco writer Herbert Gold is the author of many books of
fiction and nonfiction. His memoir "Still Alive! A Temporary Condition"
was published last month.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress