Essential Saroyan: A Selection of William Saroyan's Best Writings

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Essential Saroyan: A Selection of William Saroyan's Best Writings
Author William Saroyan
Editor William Justice
Publication Year 2005
ISBN ISBN 1597140015
Publisher Heyday Books
Publishing City Santa Clara
Language English
Category Literature & Fiction

A selection of William Saroyan's best writings

His name was on the lips of two generations, and countries around the world clamored for his work. An Armenian who grew up in the fields of Fresno, California, he traveled the globe, living in Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles. He rubbed elbows with Steinbeck, traded insults with Hemingway, encouraged a young Toshio Mori, and stole a girl from Orson Welles. He was the only writer to turn down the Pulitzer Prize. Through his plays, short stories and novels, he exalted the mysteries of youth, pondered the impossibility of love, and spoke to this strange condition of being alive. Above all, he declared that the duty of a writer is to have one hell of a good time.

by Jonathan Kirsch, Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book

Los Angeles Times
September 11, 2005 Sunday
Home Edition

BOOK REVIEW; Features Desk; Part R; Pg. 2

Essential Saroyan A Selection of William Saroyan's Best Writings
William Saroyan, edited by William E. Justice Heyday Books/Santa Clara University: 208 pp., $11.95 paper; ISBN 1597140015

Review, is at work on a book about Revelation and its role in American culture and politics.

SAROYAN is a brand name in American letters. Nowadays, however, the famous surname appears mostly on the work of Aram Saroyan ("Artists in Trouble") and his daughter, Strawberry ("Girl Walks Into a Bar").

The founder of the family dynasty, Aram's father, William, is sadly neglected. When his work is read at all, it is mostly compulsory in a college survey course or a high school textbook. "For whatever reasons," observed Peter H. King in a 1997 column in The Times, "Saroyan today is held under book-land quarantine."

William E. Justice, who previously co-edited the lively anthology "California Uncovered: Stories for the 21st Century," sets out to restore the paterfamilias to his rightful place in "Essential Saroyan," a discerning sampler of the writer's most enchanting and enduring fiction. "This book is a valentine," Justice confesses. "But lest you take its sentiment lightly, be warned: it hides a landmine.

It may leave you forever changed."

Time magazine saluted Saroyan at the end of his life for the "ease and charm" of his stories, but the apparent compliment carries a subtext -- his principal literary crime, according to his contemporary critics, was a certain sentimentality and even soft-heartedness. But whether these qualities ought to be regarded as a weakness or a strength remains in the eye of the beholder.

"The sheer, unabashed \o7adolescence\f7 of the man, with all its bravado, sentiment, and defiant idealism," writes Justice, "came to define Saroyan."

Indeed, Saroyan was perfectly capable of the showy gesture, another quirk that did not endear him to the cooler critics. "As a writer," Justice points out, "Saroyan was an athlete." Perhaps the best example is the challenge he set for himself in 1934 -- Saroyan wrote one short story daily for a month and submitted each to Story magazine, which published them. A year later, his first and most famous collection, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories," was a bestseller. Its title story opens "Essential Saroyan."

"Horizontally wakeful amid universal widths," he writes in its beginning passage to describe the phantasmagorical moment when the protagonist stirs from sleep, "practicing laughter and mirth, satire, the end of all, Rome and yes of Babylon, clenched teeth, remembrance, much warmth volcanic, the streets of Paris, the plains of Jericho, much gliding as of reptile in abstraction, a gallery of watercolors, the sea and the fish with eyes, symphony, a table in the corner of the Eiffel Tower, jazz at the opera house, alarm clock and the tap-dancing of doom, conversation with a tree, the river Nile, the roar of Dostoevsky, and the dark sun."

Even the reader has to take a breath.

Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908 and spent five years in an Oakland orphanage before his widowed mother took back her children. He chose the Central Valley as the setting of some of his most accomplished fiction, including his autobiographical novel "The Human Comedy."

Thus, he places his characters in the same public library where the largely self-taught author acquired his love of reading and writing.

"[E]veryone was hushed, because they were seeking wisdom," he writes of the reading room. "They were near books. They were trying to find out."

Saroyan celebrated his Armenian heritage with unapologetic pride of ancestry and a certain self-deprecating humor: "We barbarians from Asia Minor are hairy people," he writes in "Seventy Thousand Assyrians." "[W]hen we need a haircut, we \o7need \f7a haircut." His novel "My Name Is Aram" has been called "the Armenian 'Huck Finn,' " Justice writes in his introduction. At the end of his life, Saroyan's ashes were divided between Fresno and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Saroyan's famously unhappy marriage to his much-courted first wife, Carol -- his rivals included Orson Welles, Clifford Odets and Marlon Brando, and she later married actor Walter Matthau -- is mentioned only in Justice's illuminating introduction. But Saroyan's deep embitterment over his service in World War II explains the fear and anger that boils up in "The Adventures of Wesley Jackson," a wholly unsentimental antiwar novel that carries some of the same sting as Joseph Heller's "Catch-22."

"[T]he big-family spirit that comes over a whole country when there's a War makes me a little suspicious of the people who throw the party because it seems to me they are always smiling and full of hope and too quick to be heroic, whereas the fellows in uniform are confused and miserable most of the time," declares the protagonist. "\o7I'm\f7 scared because I'm in the Army, but what the hell's scaring the people who aren't in the Army?"

Saroyan acquits himself of the charge of mawkishness in the final selection, "A Writer's Declaration, a blend of memoir and manifesto that includes some of the most bracing wisdom one author has ever shared with his fellow writers. It is worth the price of the volume.

"What advice have I for the potential writer?" he asks. "I have none, for anybody is a potential writer, and the writer who is a writer needs no advice and seeks none.... The writer is a spiritual anarchist as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody.... When he's dead he'll probably be as dead as others are dead, but while he is alive he is alive as no one else is, not even another writer.... He is also mad, measurably so, but saner than all others, with the best sanity, the only sanity worth bothering about -- the living, creative, vulnerable, valorous, unintimidated, and arrogant sanity of a free man."

Justice insists that Saroyan was "once the most famous writer on earth" and argues that he belongs in the company of Kahlil Gibran, Dylan Thomas, J.D. Salinger, C.S. Lewis, the Brontes, Dostoevsky, Jack Kerouac and Sylvia Plath. Even if the praise is a bit overwrought, the fact remains that Justice has picked well from Saroyan's life work and makes the case that the great man is sadly and unfairly neglected. *

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