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, writers, food, places, and his plan to write An Application for Permission to Live. His only interaction with another character occurs in his interview with the cold and efficient woman at the employment agency.
Saroyan’s style in the story is poetic in its lyric statement and rich allusions to people and things. Like images of a life going quickly by, the names cascade through the character’s mind, seemingly out of his control to shape them into a logical pattern. His desperation at times directs his thoughts to food and shelter, but his weakness does not allow him to hold or develop any singular thought for long. At the last, his thoughts drift up, away from his body, with his life, in death, becoming “dreamless, unalive, perfect.” That dissolving of life into nothingness offers a quiet, dignified apotheosis of the human spirit that Saroyan makes almost enviable.
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 writer finds a penny in the gutter, and realizing that he can buy almost nothing with it, fantasizes about what he would do if he had money; he would buy a car, visit prostitutes, but most important, buy food. He is reduced to meals of bread, coffee, and cigarettes, and now he has no more bread. There is no work for him at all, much less work for a writer. From a hill he looks at the city and thinks of it as a place from which he is denied admittance. He lives in a society in which the work he does is not respected. He plans to write An Application for Permission to Live. He thinks of the possibility of visiting a...
(The entire section is 848 words.)