From 1934, when The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze appeared, to the wartime era of the early 1940’s, Saroyan enjoyed a literary reputation rivaling those of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. After the war, however, he was unable to achieve enough critical recognition and popularity to regain it. To later generations of readers, the vigor and originality that marked his writing in the 1930’s and early 1940’s was gone, and, with some exceptions, his successive works seemed too familiar, self-centered, and routine. As a result, his postwar era audience steadily dwindled.
Ironically, it was partly Saroyan’s success that accounted for his ebbing popularity. The literary voice he fashioned was well suited to the bad times of the Great Depression and the anxious situation of the prewar era, but conditions changed, and, like many other writers, Saroyan was unable to make a full adjustment to either his fame or the changing times. His later literary career seems largely spent in self-justification.
The solipsistic self-centeredness of Saroyan’s later work is, to some measure, foreshadowed by the earlier work on which his reputation rests. His first collection of stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, contains several pieces in which the narrative voice is unabashedly the author’s own, despite the narrator’s fictional identification as a character of a different ethnic or national origin from Saroyan’s.
Although some critics demurred, the conspicuous presence of the author did not repel Saroyan’s early readers. What they found in his work was a freshness in style and theme offering a welcome tonic for the harshness of the times. Breaking with the tradition of the “well-made” or formulaic story, Saroyan presented a series of stories centered on character rather than plot. Some of them seem to be little more than transliterations of notebook observations, without conflict, plot, or theme, more rightly considered sketches than stories. Still, despite a rather sophomoric audacity that marks the preface, and the authorial intrusions in some pieces, the work has an engaging, highly individual, lyrical style.
To a nation standing in bread lines, Saroyan (himself poor but optimistic) offered an affirmation of life in his insistence that, even in starvation, people have a dignity and grace of which no external conditions can deprive them. This idea infuses all of Saroyan’s early work, including the two works for which he is best known: The Time of Your Life and The Human Comedy.
Throughout these and his shorter fiction, Saroyan insists that there is an irrepressible joy in living and hope even in death. Within that general thematic frame, Saroyan focuses mostly on have-not characters who struggle against bad odds with simple faith and compassion. Saroyan’s best-delineated characters are males, many undergoing an internal rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood with a self-consciousness that is, itself, the story. In nine pieces of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, the central character is a writer who is, in fact, Saroyan, rallying his lust for life under a thin fictional veil.
Although full of ironic contradictions, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze iterates Saroyan’s notion that fiction should not be contrived and artificially plotted but should be an expression of the writer’s inner self, presented free of dogmatic principles of composition. The lyric and impressionistic quality of much of Saroyan’s prose derives from this artistic credo. In a narrow, less all-consuming way, Saroyan shares the involvement in humankind that is the focus of Walt Whitman’s poetry. He repeatedly confirms his determination, through himself, to investigate humans, to reveal their inner core, to understand and honor them.
In his more mature work, especially The Time of Your Life and The Human Comedy, Saroyan achieves greater objectivity, but the dominant themes remain. In the exchange of ideas and in their thoughts, Saroyan’s wholly sympathetic characters explore most of the essential notions advanced in his first stories. Perhaps a bit facile and naïve, the characters are nevertheless warm and engaging. Saroyan’s world is one in which the poor and the weak can find riches in human love and compassion and strength in hope and simple decency. It is also a world in which innocence can be restored to the fallen, and human greatness has nothing to do with the public recognition of it.
Although even Saroyan’s best works have been faulted for their lack of a principal conflict and a corresponding lack of a strong plot line, many of his episodes and vignettes are memorable. Saroyan, of course, explicitly rejected plot as a vital concern in his fiction. Many of his short pieces are sketches, even personal essays and letters, rather than stories, and his plays, including The Time of Your Life, tend to be diffuse and lacking in dramatic urgency. As a result, Saroyan’s characters are more memorable than their contexts.
At his best, Saroyan creates highly original, atypical, and occasionally quixotic characters. For example, he floods The Time of Your Life with a variety of genial and zany losers and misfits, all of whom are highly individualized. Particular character poignancy is achieved in motifs that occur in several works, especially in the spiritual bonding of male characters. Saroyan’s better characters tend to transcend their simple, humdrum lives in their basic goodwill and kindness, and it is principally for these, his beautiful people, that Saroyan will be remembered.
The Human Comedy
First published: 1943
Type of work: Novel
A lad of fourteen in wartime America learns to accept death through the affirmation of life.
The Human Comedy, dedicated to Takoohi Saroyan, was first written as a screenplay under a contractual arrangement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but in 1943, with the film version in production, Saroyan used the script scenario as the basis of his first and most popular novel. Set in Ithaca, a fictional name for Fresno, the work is based on some of Saroyan’s boyhood experiences and familiar reminiscences. In fact, the Macauley family, central in the plot, has parallels to Saroyan’s real family, without, however, a similar heritage.
The novel’s main character, Homer Macauley, is a fourteen-year-old adolescent with a job and some experiences that relate to actual events in the author’s life. With his father deceased and his older brother in the Army, Homer must assume adult responsibilities beyond his years. He is a surrogate father to his younger brother, Ulysses, and the provider for his whole family. At the outset of the novel, he has secured a part-time job as a telegraph messenger boy, which takes him into a variety of homes and businesses to encounter the richly delineated and variegated characters that people the novel.
Apart from Homer, the most engaging characters are Mr. Grogan, the old, rummy telegraph operator; Spangler, the telegraph office manager; Homer’s mother, Kate Macauley; Miss Hicks, Homer’s teacher; and Ulysses, his younger brother. These and a few others, such as Marcus, Homer’s older brother, are rather representative of the vintage Saroyan character who, though well enough individualized, shares with the rest a simple faith, love for life, and inherent goodness.
Although there is a central, persistent concern with the disruptive impact of World War II on the lives of these characters, the novel, like Saroyan’s early sketches, provides a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected. Some have no inherent connection to the central focus of the novel or causal relationship to scenes juxtaposed to them. Nevertheless, most offer charming, human-interest interludes and comic leavening to the novel’s more serious themes and maudlin moments. Two examples are the episodes in which Ulysses gets caught in the trap in Covington’s Sporting Goods Store and his later confrontation with Mr. Mechano, a mechanical man on display in a drug-store window.
Despite the thematic similarities and use of characters who seem familiar from Saroyan’s earlier stories, The Human Comedy departs from his earlier work both in style and in technique. The novel is basically more objective, the style more direct and less effusive. The point of view is that of an omniscient and unidentified third person, and although there are incursions into the thoughts of some characters, the impressionistic reverie that marks several of the sketches is virtually gone. Saroyan’s earlier concern with his travails as artist is totally obliterated, and his authorial presence is largely masked and mute.
Perhaps the result of writing for the stage, Saroyan also makes very effective use of dialogue in the novel, something sparingly used in his very first sketches. In focusing on character interaction, Saroyan may sacrifice the lyricism of his internal monologues, but he in turn gains an admirable economy and tough simplicity of expression reminiscent of Hemingway’s prose.
Despite its convoluted development, the novel prepares the reader for its final, inevitable revelation: the death of Marcus and its impact on Homer and the rest of the Macauleys. From the outset, it is clear that death is never far away for the...
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