The plot is traditional enough--a young writer, poor and starving, wanders the city streets in an attempt to stave off his hunger. He cannot find meaningful work and must sell his book to survive. In his vagaries, he dreams of food and of climbing out of his body. He finds a penny and brings it to his rented flat where he polishes it and dreams over it. Hallucinating because of his hunger, he dies alone, his imagination active to the end.
As in many of Saroyan’s stories, the plot is loosely episodic, but there is a distinctly Russian flavor to this piece. The young writer’s despondent wanderings about the heartless city are suggestive of Gogol’s or Dostoyevski’s starkly realistic portrayals of sensitive souls in conflict with an unheeding, indifferent society.
Such traditional material, however, is presented in the stream-of-consciousness technique. In the brief first part of the story entitled “Sleep,” a series of dream images and associations flow through the sleeping writer’s mind. This jangle of cultural, political, literary, and comic allusions all thematically suggest a cosmic imbalance, a world out of joint. Yet all is somehow unified or reconciled by the free-flight of the man on the trapeze, the writer and his imagination.
In the second part, “Wakefulness,” the writer makes his rounds of the city looking for bread and work, his physical action alternating with his bitter attitude toward a society that offers him humiliation rather than life. In his room at the end, the writer withdraws into his mind, flying out of his body as easily and as gracefully as the daring young man on the flying trapeze.