Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
“The Man with the Heart in the Highlands,” later to evolve into the full-length play My Heart’s in the Highlands, first appeared in a collection of Saroyan’s short fiction titled Three Times Three, issued in 1936. It is a charming fantasy focusing on an old vagabond actor named Jasper MacGregor and his magical bugle, the use of which results in a minor miracle.
The narrator, Johnny, recalls the story as an experience he had in 1914, when he was six years old. Old MacGregor appears in front of Johnny’s house on San Benito Avenue, presumably in Fresno, playing his bugle. In the exchange that follows, MacGregor insists that his heart is in the highlands of Scotland, where it grieves, though for what remains a mystery. The thirsty bugler begs for water, and Johnny takes him inside to give him some. When MacGregor asks for food, Johnny’s father, a poet, sends Johnny to a local grocer, Mr. Kosak, to get cheese and bread on credit. At first adamant in his refusal, Kosak finally relents and sends Johnny home with the requested items and advice that the boy’s father find work. The trio quickly down the food, but MacGregor remains unsatisfied. He begins searching the house for more to eat.
When Johnny refuses to allow him to stew up a pet gopher snake, MacGregor resorts to using his bugle. His blowing is so loud that people from miles around gather by the house to listen. In exchange for playing music for each of them, MacGregor asks them to go and return with food. All comply, and the family and its guest feast grandly on the food from the newly stocked larder. MacGregor remains with Johnny and his father for more than two weeks, but he is then asked to go to an old people’s home to serve as lead actor in an entertainment for the inmates. He complies, whereupon the poet once more sends his son to Kosak’s store to get food on credit. Johnny returns with birdseed and some maple syrup, which makes his father ponder his chances of writing great poetry fed on such fare.
The tale is fablelike and otherwise typical of Saroyan in its cheerfulness and buoyancy. Yet in its style and technique, it departs sharply from the earlier impressionistic sketch “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” It develops largely through dialogue, with its narrative description held to an essential minimum, at times serving no other purpose than to identify the speaker of a line of the dialogue. It was this dramatic method that prompted the editor of The One-Act Play Magazine to suggest that Saroyan turn the piece into a one-act play, which became, in fact, the first form that the play My Heart’s in the Highlands took.
The first portion of the story has Johnny functioning as an insistent inquisitor, interrogating MacGregor almost unmercifully. The staccato exchange of one-liners is direct and abrupt and is interrupted only when Johnny’s father comes out to the porch. Then there is a similar exchange between father and son. Many of the lines, like theatrical dialogue, are elliptical sentence fragments. Questions and commands are dominant, with simple, monosyllabic words like “get” and “go” beginning the speeches and being repeated in tight patterns. Similar dialogue, though modified by more description as the story progresses, is used throughout the piece, notably in the exchanges between Johnny and Mr. Kosak. Coupled with diction that is very simple, the style is tough, brusque, and brittle. Furthermore, there is no probing of any character’s thoughts, so the narrative point of view is wholly objective.
The relationship between Johnny and his father is particularly amusing. The father is crusty and demanding, cursing freely as he orders Johnny about, but Johnny more than holds his own, talking back and arguing with his father spiritedly. The father’s cantankerousness is being visited on the son, but in an entirely humorous and harmless way. Neither the father nor the son is anything other than a Saroyan good guy in a gruff disguise.
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