Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” the story giving Saroyan’s first collection of stories and sketches its title, initially appeared in Story magazine. The piece is basically an impressionistic reverie. Although told in the third-person voice, it works through the recording consciousness of the unnamed protagonist, an impoverished writer who is literally starving to death. The writer’s thoughts are disjointed and incoherent, as is characteristic of the stream-of-consciousness technique used by French novelist Marcel Proust, whose work the writer reads in the story.
The hunger gnawing at the writer’s body presumably accounts for the randomness of his thoughts. Aware that his strength is slipping away, he sets out to look for work, fortified, as on many previous days, with only coffee and cigarettes. Little actually happens during his sojourn outside. He finds a penny in a gutter and speculates on its possible use, moves through the city (looking at his reflection in the window glass of stores and restaurants), and goes for an interview at an employment agency. He goes to the YMCA and to the library to read Proust before returning to his room, where, at last, he falls face down on his bed and dies a peaceful, almost welcomed death.
During these mostly mechanical actions, his mind races through a welter of disconnected ideas. The song of the title keeps humming in his brain, as do thoughts about public figures,...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” is divided into two short, titled parts. The first and shortest (only three paragraphs long), called “Sleep,” describes the dream images and thoughts of a young San Francisco writer before he awakens on the last day of his life. His sleeping mind is flooded with a series of unconnected impressions, including cities (Rome, Paris, Jerusalem), writers (Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevski), political figures (Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler), animals (a reptile and a panther), and purely imaginary scenes (“the magnified flower twice the size of the universe”).
The writer’s sleep is ended in the second and longest section of the story, “Wakefulness.” He is poor, having only one tie and drinking only coffee for breakfast. He reminds himself that in the unconscious world of sleep, from which a welter of images has just been presented, all human experiences are unified. In that death in life, one can experience eternity.
The real world that the writer inhabits is quite a different matter. The streets are cold and grim, and he walks noisily, as if to affirm himself in the face of an uncaring world. The lyrics of the popular song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” float through his mind and, throughout the story, he associates himself with the circus acrobat who so skillfully performs feats of daring. His amazing feat is merely to get through the day.
(The entire section is 848 words.)