Talk:William Saroyan

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International Herald Tribune Dec 19 2002

A DARING YOUNG MAN A Biography of William Saroyan

  Reviewed by Janet Maslin NYT  Thursday, December 19, 2002

By John Leggett. Illustrated. 462 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.

William Saroyan could write a play in a day and a short story in two hours. Months before his death in 1981, at 73, he claimed to have 50 published books, 50 unpublished manuscripts and 50 years' worth of journal entries to his credit. So it is astounding to find no first-hand evidence of the Saroyan voice in John Leggett's paraphrase-filled new biography, "A Daring Young Man."

This is not to say that Leggett, longtime director of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and a former book editor, has not done his homework. Though his notes are sketchy and his bibliography mystifyingly brief (listing only three books not written by members of the Saroyan family), he has obvious feeling for his subject. He grasps the larger, self-destructive misanthropy in Saroyan's life, as well as much of the minutiae (at the level of family quarrels, real estate transactions and gambling debts). But his book is hurt from the outset by an apparent lack of permission to use Saroyan's own words, and a lack of candor about that shortcoming.

In its necessarily roundabout way, "A Daring Young Man" does shape a detailed portrait of a memorably irascible man. "With a lover like this, humanity needs no enemy," a reviewer for Time magazine once wrote about Saroyan, the ostensibly bighearted author of "The Human Comedy," "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," "My Heart's in the Highlands" and many other books and plays. Even among the ranks of famously difficult, hard-living literary prodigies, Saroyan stood out as a hard case. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama for "The Time of Your Life" in 1940, Saroyan refused the honor, complaining that it should have come sooner.

The Saroyan gall, as Leggett describes it, was spectacular. It did not escape this playwright's notice that he had the same initials as William Shakespeare. Nor did he doubt the brilliance of his own work, the wisdom of his own advice or the superiority of his Armenian ancestry. He was "able to hear but one voice," Leggett observes, "his own."

"A Daring Young Man" traces some of its subject's hubris to his traumatic childhood stay at an orphanage after the death of his father. A source of more arrogance ("Why do I identify with this bitter and ultimately lonely human being?" Leggett asks himself) was early popular success. After his first book's publication in 1934, "it had been a miraculously short trip from worthlessness to worthiness," and Saroyan developed vast confidence in his own talents, even though, as a review by Nelson Algren once put it, "Saroyan is a man who says a great deal that washes nothing but his own laundry."

Saroyan's two volatile marriages to Carol Marcus, whom he met in 1942, are described in all their stormy detail (though without the cattiness that Truman Capote brought to writing about Carol and friends lunching at La Cote Basque, material that goes unmentioned here). Also addressed is his suspicion that his wife was Jewish; he left her when he learned that was the case. So are the endless gambling and drinking exploits that punctuated their life together, and Saroyan's enormously fractious relations with his two children.

For all the pettiness and rancor that are described here, "A Daring Young Man" is essentially a sympathetic portrait. In early Saroyan writings, Leggett finds that "under the sense of man's tragedy lay a big joy." He sees how the pride that kept Saroyan squabbling with editors, publishers and film executives increasingly damaged his prospects. When it came to books, Broadway and Hollywood, "the common factor in the three experiences was Bill's failure to root and grow in the medium," he astutely observes. "Apprenticeship was humbling, and he could not learn from the people around him."

Older, sadder, gripped by hypochondria as well as real illness, the Saroyan found late in this book is a wrenching victim of his own anger. He still sought acclaim as a writer. But "he had turned away from other roles, as husband, father, friend and citizen, and had none to rely on in those final years." In describing the long, painful process by which Saroyan reached this juncture, Leggett's book lives up to an assessment in this biography's introduction. "The Saroyan story," he writes, "so gallantly begun, becomes a tragedy of rage and rejection. We can feel pity and fear for him and the catharsis these are said to bring - in gratitude for being spared ourselves."