William Saroyan

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Saroyan, William 1908–

Saroyan is an Armenian-American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, and writer of children's books. During the Depression, Saroyan's sentimental fiction, with its nostalgia for a former, better time, was received with welcome relief by an American public who sought escape from the bleak reality of their lives. With the advent of World War II, however, the changing values and tastes of a more sophisticated readership rejected Saroyan's simplistic stories of optimism and the triumph of the American Dream. His refusal to adapt his fiction to the growth and change of a more complex society has prompted critics to dismiss his work as superficial and limited. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1940 for The Time of Your Life, but refused it saying that this play was "no more great or good" than the rest of his work. He has written under the pseudonym of Sirak Goryan. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Thelma J. Shinn

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Saroyan's philosophy is not a resolution of but a recognition and acceptance of the contradictions of life. He tells us that life is both funny and sad, both violent and tender, and that generally the contradictions are present in the same scene, the same person, at the same time. Consequently, critics could not define Saroyan's plays—to give one interpretation would conceal the other interpretations simultaneously maintained by the symbolism. This led many critics to reject Saroyan's works because they felt that the plays, in appealing to the irrational and to the emotional in the audience rather than to the intellectual and rational, could be dismissed as mere Romanticism. The more perceptive critics, however, suspected that there was more to Saroyan than sentimentality. (p. 185)

The nonplot symbolic dramas of Pinter, of Beckett, of Ionesco with their usually unrelieved pessimism are remarkably similar to the "romantic fantasies" of Saroyan. Saroyan displays the same disregard for spelling out meanings to the audience, the same freedom with scenery and plot, the same concentration on the individual. Much of modern drama is considered existential because the individual is trying to find for himself some meaning in this absurd universe—and the meaning, if any, appears to be within himself. In this sense, at least, the existential theme is precisely what most concerns Saroyan.

Saroyan's departure from modern theater, as well as from the theater of the 30's and 40's, is his remarkable—his critics say unrealistic—ability to find a note of affirmation, to testify finally to the rejected ideal of human dignity. (pp. 185-86)

The multiplicity of [critical interpretations of My Heart's in the Highlands] reflects the symbolic import of the play, a symbolism … exclusively American. Saroyan explores the themes of economic inequality, the plight of the artist, individual integrity, the search for beauty and the growth of awareness in a seemingly haphazard way in the simple international American stock of a small neighborhood. The Scotch bugler, the Armenian-speaking grandmother, the Polish grocer are all beautifully American. The setting is representative rather than realistic; the simple dialogue is intuitive rather than logical.

The economic inequality is implicit in the poverty of the family…. Saroyan's interest lies not so much in the inequality indiscriminately arising from the indifference of the external world as it does in the individual's ability to turn even this into a vehicle for the expression of human dignity…. Saroyan's play emphasizes the brotherhood of man and the dignity of the individual, the human relationships rather than the social "realities."

The plight of the artist theme is also treated in a universal manner by Saroyan. Though Johnny's father represents...

(This entire section contains 2693 words.)

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the artist, he is not alone. Saroyan recognizes the artist—the sensitive awareness to living—in each of the characters…. Saroyan identifies the artist as the man sensitive to the beauty which can be found in the world. His plight is in the rejection by the world of his attempts to express this beauty, and that rejection is equally wrong—or at least equally possible—whether the man is a first-rate or a tenth-rate poet. (pp. 186-87)

This search for beauty within the individual which Saroyan recognizes comes close to being the element of the divine in humanity. Mac Gregor, who achieves recognizable expression of beauty in his music, has his "heart in the high-lands," and goes there at the end of the play. The towns-people implicitly recognize the divine origin of this gift when they bring the food as sacrifices to it. The father has created his successful poem in the person of Johnny and in himself—thus they are in this sense identical and thus MacGregor wants to come to their home to die because that is the closest he can come to the divine perception in this world.

It is Johnny's father who gains the most complete awareness of the value of the individual and of the search for beauty in this play…. Johnny himself, as he ends the play with "I'm not mentioning any names, Pa, but something's wrong somewhere," has only grasped half the truth—the easiest half according to Saroyan. His recognition of the injustice of a world that prevents good people from dwelling together peacefully in the goodness of the universe is the stopping point of most modern views of the world. Saroyan goes on to assert that man's search for beauty can carry him beyond the ugliness of the world to the divine within himself and within his fellow men. If this attitude must be romantic and sentimental, then Saroyan is both—and so is Emerson, Thoreau, Hart Crane, any artist who believes that man can transcend the injustice of the external world by looking within himself and that man can find a beauty within himself that is within each man. Saroyan tries to reach this inner beauty, and if he does not appeal to it with logical arguments, it may be because beauty is beyond logic. If he couches his appeal in what seems sentimental and romantic, it is because inner beauty is the source of whatever sentiment and romance man can know. Even this first play shows that Saroyan is not simply saying that life is beautiful and all men love each other. He says rather that in each man with any sensitivity there is a desire for beauty and that this desire should be followed and nurtured if there is to be any positive reality of beauty in this absurd world.

Saroyan's greatest success, The Time of Your Life, carries the same message as My Heart's in the Highlands, or messages rather, since the simple statement above can scarcely represent the levels of meaning presented in Saroyan's symbolic dramas…. The central set is a run-down bar where the central character sits drinking champagne and watching people. Every person (with the exception of Blick, the depersonalized symbol of the authority of the external world reminiscent of Kafka's bureaucrats) is seeking for beauty. However, it is not at all easy to dismiss this as romanticism either, even the most "apparently" romantic situation of the prostitute with the heart of gold who gets a new life through the sincere love of a man. The ingredients are romantic—because they deal with that desire for beauty within the individual which is the source of all romance—but Saroyan's treatment of the material reveals more perception than is usually attributed to him. The prostitute remembers the beauty of her childhood—when her childhood wasn't beautiful…. Here Saroyan's admiration for family ties is apparent, but most apparent is that the word "home" epitomized for Kitty her search for beauty. Her perception of the indefinable beauty of her family and her childhood—despite the trouble and the sadness—was her artistic achievement, her communication of beauty where it is not immediately discernible…. [This] attempt is infinitely better than the alternative, than the prostitution of the individual by the depersonalized destructiveness of the external world.

Saroyan's ending to this play, however, if not condemned as sentimentality, will have to be recognized as pure wish-fulfillment. (pp. 187-89)

[In Hello Out There, Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, and Death Along the Wabash, all pessimistic plays,] Saroyan openly admits that his romantic individualists in their search for beauty do not always succeed—and this is perhaps why he said later that he repudiated Hello Out There—but the value of their attempts contrasted with the rest of the world still places them far above the other characters. The most romantic of these three is Hello Out There, where the young man says to the girl that with her he could be good—but in the light of Saroyan's other plays this can be raised above its typically sentimental interpretation. The young man's recognition of beauty in the girl makes her a symbol of his unique expression of beauty, of his poem or song, and therefore of the true goal of his restless search for beauty. (p. 190)

But we should avoid placing only one interpretation on Saroyan's symbols; the girl must also be seen in relation to Mr. Kosak of My Heart's in the Highlands. She is the one person who has listened to the young man, who has in a sense read his poetry and therefore given value to it. Thus at the end she blends with him through their shared perception of beauty and her last line is the same as his first line—"Hell—out there!"—which is both an attempt to communicate with the world and an acceptance of the alienation of the individual.

Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning is even more symbolic than Hello Out There, leaving realistic presentation far behind…. The most obvious theme is the conflict and identification of illusion and reality. Saroyan maintains in this play a precarious balance between the external and internal world, and the success of the play is that he doesn't reject either as illusory: in the delightfully drunken perception of Fritz the cab driver, "Illusion or reality, no illusion or no reality, one more drink before I go."

However, in attesting to the illusoriness of the external world at all, Saroyan is taking his stand for the internal world as before. Whether Kitty's dream of home is an illusion, whether each man's search for beauty is illusory, it is an illusion which many—Saroyan included—honor by such titles as divinity, as art, as inspiration. Simultaneously, for Saroyan at least, whether the external world is irrelevant and is going to disappear tomorrow morning or not, it is within the context of that world—with all its "delicate balance of despair and delight"—that inner reality must be expressed…. (pp. 190-91)

The final lines of the play, in which Fritz places a bet on Tomorrow Morning, show that Saroyan had passed beyond the wish-fulfillment he allowed himself in The Time of Your Life…. Fritz's bet symbolizes Saroyan's willingness to gamble on the desire for beauty in mankind despite his realization that the odds are against him and that he has lost before.

Death Along the Wabash is the most pessimistic of Saroyan's plays. Hello Out There recognized the world's rejection of the artist's perception of beauty, but held out the hope that the search for beauty would still be carried on by the individual. In Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning, despite the lighter tone, the conclusion … is even more pessimistic. This is only relieved by Fritz's willingness to continue betting on the losing horse anyway.

In Death Along the Wabash, no one is left to search for beauty anymore, and the world refuses to gamble on the individual. Instead, it destroys him, ostensibly because it is helping him to reach his goal—which is only attainable in heaven, or at least out of this world. The Hobo as the representative of the world is right when he says that he has destroyed the idealistic, Negro, escaped convict Joe in self-defense: a complete perception of the beauty possible within oneself does destroy the external irrelevancies for that individual, and in this sense Joe was threatening the Hobo's existence. (pp. 191-92)

This play, so reminiscent of Pinter, surpasses both the obvious theme of murder for materialistic satisfaction and the topical theme of racial discrimination—of the Hobo representing society's specific persecution of the Negro. It is the somewhat superficial concentration on the racial theme which weakens all three of [these plays]…. Saroyan transcends this in Death Along the Wabash because he is not so much trying to write as a black man as to portray the individual persecuted by the world, the individual searching for beauty who has been his main concern in the other plays. Consequently, portraying a hero that is black rather than a black hero enables Saroyan to point out parallels between discrimination against minority groups and discrimination against the individual. Except for the blatant exposition in Joe's first speech, the play is powerfully written. The speeches are generally longer and weightier than those usually found in Saroyan's plays, and the conclusion of unrelieved pessimism is hardly recognizable as the work of this affirmative playwright…. [The Hobo, a] powerful portrait of that portion of mankind which recognizes the external world as the only reality … and thus destroys the inner reality in others and in themselves, is especially significant because the Hobo's arguments appeal strongly to logic, to the rational perception of the world. Those critics who argued that Saroyan was not logical should read this play—they might note an undercurrent of resentment here of the artist who was critized for appealing to the heart. This play gives modern society what it claims to want—a realistic pessimism and the destruction of the idealistic and romantic in mankind.

In fact, the pessimism of this play strikes deeply because Saroyan's multi-level symbolism enables him to reflect parallels between many forms of persecution and discrimination and at the same time to show the close relationship between the persecutor and his victim. Saroyan not only realizes that, as in this play, the sensitive individual, the artist, the economically oppressed, the black man or Armenian in search of something beyond what society has allotted him, will more likely than not be destroyed by the world before he can reach his goal; but even more painful is Saroyan's recognition that this destruction is likely to be at the hands of the individual's own father—from another man who could have chosen to search for beauty or fight for freedom but who sold out to the world instead for materialistic reasons.

This is not a new discovery Saroyan made just before writing Death Along the Wabash. The world had always opposed his individuals; it is only that he has preferred to place his bet on beauty, on humanity, on tomorrow morning despite the odds. He reaffirms the value of the individual in … The Cave Dwellers, and if one reviewer derides it for imitating Beckett by calling it "an affirmative 'Waiting for Godot'" it should be remembered that Saroyan was writing plotless symbolic drama many years before Waiting for Godot appeared in 1953. It is true that several of Saroyan's general situations reflect other plays—Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth is strongly recalled in High Time Along the Wabash and Hart and Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You provides the source for much of the merriment in The Beautiful People. Despite these recognizable influences, Saroyan's plays … are still very original and carry different messages from their models. This is equally true of The Cave Dwellers, where the characters resemble nothing so much as characters in other Saroyan plays. (pp. 192-93)

The Cave Dwellers, however, lacks the power of Saroyan's earlier works except in isolated moments. The ingredients are there, the intention is there, but somehow the use of romanticism has become an immersion in romanticism. Saroyan is pushing too hard: as Walter Kerr observed, "The sentence beginning 'Love is …' occurs more times in eleven scenes than I could count, try though I did." Critics have frequently argued that Saroyan tends to state his message rather than present it dramatically, and statements do detract from the effect of this play, anyway. In fact, Saroyan protests too much this time, perhaps because he had become increasingly more aware of the loneliness of his affirmative position and the difficulties of maintaining it in the face of current conditions…. [We] might validly wonder whom he is trying to convince in the Cave Dwellers, the audience or himself?

However, allowing for the intrusion of sentimentality and didacticism in The Cave Dwellers, on the whole Saroyan has succeeded remarkably well in using romantic material symbolically. To one who automatically identifies any affirmation with romanticism, he is a romantic. But to recognize the world for what it is, to admit the apparent hopelessness of an affirmation of the individual, yet still to be willing to gamble on human dignity because of the value of the attempt itself sounds more like courage than romanticism. (p. 194)

Thelma J. Shinn, "William Saroyan: Romantic Existentialist," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1972, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), September, 1972, pp. 185-94.

Edward Hoagland

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[Saroyan's] contribution has been to write from joy, which is in short supply lately, and sparse as a tradition in our literature anyway, unless one looks back to some of the founding figures, such as Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. He predates the glut of black humor and rancorous ethnicity, the literary theater of cruelty and the absurd, though part of the point about Saroyan which is so interesting is that he has been a profoundly, innovatively "ethnic" writer—one of the very first in America, one who has been a conscious spokesman for a people who survived a genocidal holocaust—but that throughout his life he has chosen to write not of despair and dadaism and devastation, but joy….

The Saroyan working method—and it can seem repetitive—is to swing way out from the trapeze, do a somersault or two, and reach out flatly for our hands, trusting partly in us, and secure in the faith that if he misses there is a God somewhere to break his fall. He is an all-around believer; and of course there are, for example, the two ways to lay one's hand against one's face: either feeling the cheek, or feeling the skull—death—underneath the cheek. One can look at one's hand and see a mechanized, strange set of bending pincers, terrifying to contemplate, or see the hand as an elixir of the spirit. Because we can admire artists who lean toward either view, it's not a matter of shutting anybody out: only of insisting that both be heard.

Edward Hoagland, "A Master and a Master's Master," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 15, 1976, p. 2.

Kenneth W. Rhoads

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A careful reading [of The Time of Your Life] shows that Joe [the play's central character] may be seen as a valid Christ-figure—not a literal Christ, for The Time of Your Life is no Second Coming, nor even an allegorical Christ, but a type of Christ, essentially realistic and certainly very human—whose nature and behavior are completely consonant and who takes on stature as heroic protagonist within such a mode. Whether Saroyan consciously created Joe as Christ-figure is immaterial; this is the character which emerges and which the script projects—by allusion, by indirect revelation, by implicit scriptural parallel in Joe's motivations and the shape of his life, and by specific episodes whose relevance to the meaning of the play is carried by their symbolic content. (pp. 228-29)

Although, as with Christ, the facts of Joe's past essentially comprise a lacuna in his life up to the point of his ministry, he does reveal that—like Christ the young carpenter—he had once worked but ultimately gave it up. And the nature of that experience bears directly on his having rejected that life for his present endeavors. The commercial world brought him only disillusionment and a deep sense of guilt derived from his very success. For although he had learned how to make money, he found material success to be achieved only at the expense of others….

Joe is a type of scapegoat for the sins of his fellow man. He distinctly bears a burden of guilt for those who exploit and hurt others, and suffers in full empathy with the injured and the have-nots. (p. 230)

A multitude of passing allusions and episodes augmenting the major motifs of the play pervades The Time of Your Life, contributing to an accretion of Joe's Christ-image. Throughout the play, with the exception of one brief scene in Kitty's hotel room, Joe spends his entire time seated at his table in Nick's euphemistically named Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace at the foot of Embarcadero on San Francisco's waterfront. Thus, as Christ found his mission not in the houses of the rich patriarchs or the elite council of the Sanhedrin, but rather on the shores and in the fields among poor fisher-folk and sweating farmers, ministering to the leprous, the ill, the dying, so too Joe finds his greatest compatibility with the common people of his world…. (p. 231)

Joe seems to possess an uncanny perception, transcending time, into the future and the past, which suggests a supernatural omniscience. (p. 234)

Joe's obsession with the playthings of children thus reveals a poignant depth which goes far beyond the surface naiveté of ingenuous delight. He experiences the toys as metaphor for a tragically lost innocence in a world (basically wonderful but now gone corrupt from the unconscionable power of evil men) which cries out for redemption.

Here again a parallel with Christ is suggested. Jesus' love for children is frequently cited, and he also saw the innocence of childhood as a metaphor for the purity of soul necessary for spiritual salvation. (pp. 235-36)

Joe's essential quality … is his intense humanity—his awareness of other people and his sensitivity to their inner agonies as well as their outer struggles. This was also true of Christ, but to have endowed Joe overtly with incarnate divinity would have shifted the grounds of the play and introduced an element incongruous with its dramatic and thematic premises. Thus, the hints of Joe's supernatural qualities, the suggestions that his realm of existence somehow transcends this material, mortal one, need not—should not—be taken literally. These hints and suggestions do, nevertheless, recur with frequency and insistency. Consequently, they function effectively to enrich Joe's character through meaningful ambiguity: an ambiguity which, by the very air of mystery it imparts, serves to establish Joe's awareness of a higher, spiritual level of existence and to augment his inherently Christ-like nature…. Within the realistic context of The Time of Your Life Joe is a vital human character with his share of the passions and the foibles that mark the human animal; at the same time he is endowed with a consummate humanitarian concern for all his fellow beings. Through meaningful ambiguity Saroyan manages to suggest the transcendent spiritual quality—the greatness of heart and soul—which sets Joe apart from other men, while he keeps him firmly rooted in the real world.

While structurally Joe's dramatic function is diffuse and varied (he seems at one and the same time to be objective observer of life, interested, even passionate, participant in the swirling action, dissociated chorus, perceptive commentator on life's pains and joys, father-figure, and ingenuous child) his connection with the plot action most specifically concerns Tom and Kitty and his ultimately successful maneuverings to bring about their physical and spiritual union and effect their escape from a hopeless past and present to a new life…. (pp. 237-38)

[Joe] is prime mover in the union of the two young people. Savior of both of them in a very literal sense, he also effects a kind of rebirth for them individually and in their new life together. Tom, educated and strengthened through Joe's tutelage, may now end his discipleship and go forth to a life of independence and self-achievement; Kitty, cleansed and released from the prison of her former life, may now realize the long-suppressed dream in the return of innocence. Together, now in this time of their lives, they will be fulfilled by the strength and purity of their mutual love. In short, they will have attained, through the power of Joe's love and compassion, both the inner peace and the outer joy in living which all the habitués of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace so desperately seek but so rarely find. (pp. 239-40)

It is true that Joe expresses no regret over Blick's demise, nor does he condemn Kit for his violation of the Fourth Commandment. This does not necessarily present an inconsistency. Since Blick has come to represent unrepentant evil, the Christ-impulse in Joe would not lament its eradication, and Kit's action might even be viewed—wryly, perhaps—as a minor harrowing of hell. At the same time, Joe does not expressly approve of the killing, nor does he participate in the general exultation which it precipitates. Again, he does not judge.

The final aspect of any Christ-figure is that his ending, whether it be in death or mere disappearance, is, like his origins, obscure. Joe's departure from Nick's bar similarly carries an aura of vagueness and mystery. (p. 241)

The Time of Your Life is a play of intense romanticism and unashamed sentimentality; one must, in fact, accept Saroyan here on his own grounds if the play's full potential for an affecting emotional involvement is to be realized. Saroyan is not for the cynic or the iconoclastic realist. The interpretation of Joe [as a Christ-figure] is not only consonant with such a dramatic mode, but it may be seen to gain therein considerable dramatic depth. Any Christ-figure—as in Christ himself—is highly romantic in concept. Everything that he is and symbolizes, and all that he does, is strongly stimulating to the imagination and the emotions, capable of communicating simultaneously intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning. Certainly other interpretations of Joe may be validly advanced…. Nevertheless, Joe as Christ-figure is solidly grounded in the evidence from the script … whose very bulk and pervasiveness seem to belie coincidence. Above all, seeing Joe as type of Christ not only removes critical ambiguities heretofore existing in the absence of an alternate viable rationale, but more importantly reveals a focal character of greatly augmented stature and meaning and increases immeasurably the ideative and emotional dimensions of the play. (p. 242)

Kenneth W. Rhoads, "Joe as Christ-type in Saroyan's 'The Time of Your Life'," in Essays in Literature (copyright 1976 by Western Illinois University), Fall, 1976, pp. 227-43.

Joel Oppenheimer

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"Chance Meetings" is another of the familiar, loosely tied remembrances that [Saroyan] has done before but, as always, there are new and marvelously alive passages, and his wonderful, unconditioned people…. Years ago Mr. Saroyan postulated that there are two kinds of writers: those who run to meet death, and those who fight to keep it off. It's always been clear which side he's on, and so every person he's met, everything he's done, becomes cause for celebration…. (p. 11)

There is a particular theory about friendship in this book: "Brief friendships have such definite starting and stopping points that they take on a quality of art, of a whole thing, which cannot be broken or spoiled." Mr. Saroyan prefers these brief acquaintanceships, these chance meetings; he sometimes gets upset when the friendship extends past that wholeness; when, for example, the bookseller he's been chatting with for months suddenly realizes that his customer is the Saroyan. What Mr. Saroyan is talking about, I believe, is his own special ability to see a wholeness, a unity, in an episode. It is what makes him a great storyteller. His many short stories in that long list of published work stay with us; though they are each a tiny thing, they are whole and complete.

So I continue reading him, because he is worth reading. Forget the sentimentality that threatens to sink each line, forget the cloying sweetness that occasionally overwhelms; ride past it all, because at base, and solid, there is the story.

In a "chance meeting," he writes, "You have been thrown together accidentally, total strangers, in order to pass along … the essence of your own story and reality. You are not there to acquire more story, to have more material to carry with the rest of the material that still hasn't been really understood, or certainly hasn't been used, and you are there anonymously." Because he is always there in this fashion he does acquire more stories, more material. Because he has the honesty to admit when he doesn't understand the material, he is able to pass it on to us, and to wonder.

For this, and for other strengths, we owe a great deal to Mr. Saroyan. He's never been ranked among the heavy-weights, and yet he lasts, and he keeps writing. He matters. The stories (and the plays, which are extended stories) are the best of it. I wish there were more of those coming from him, and fewer memoirs, in which the stories get subsumed and lose their clarity a little. (pp. 11, 24)

The Saroyan voice is there because he's always been willing to listen and to talk. He never merely transcribes, as so many other prose writers do. That is the reason we have paid attention to him for more than 40 years: because he is discursive. And, curiously, some of those things we find have now come back into style: the wonderment, the fine appreciation of lunacy, the almost mystical acceptance of another person's arcane self. (p. 24)

Joel Oppenheimer, "Friendly People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1978, pp. 11, 24.

D. Keith Mano

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So much for the omniscient observer. And the first-person narration. What you've got [in Chance Meetings: A Memoir] is the Ethnic Naïve. An Ethnic Naïve book will be less than two hundred pages long, with deep margins (for deep marginalia) and fat, blank chapter breaks. Also simple, sentence-length paragraphs that reveal simple-but-profound truth because, well, they're simple. (p. 599)

William Saroyan is our Great Wise Old Armenian (Black, Pole, Jew) Who Deigns to Favor You with Reminiscences of a Rich Long Ethnic Life. The reader had better show respect: in deference to age and Armenia. Being Saroyan, Saroyan can supply his own book-jacket propaganda. "Chance Meetings is as large as anybody who happens to read it." Some gall bladder there. An ad hominem attack in advance on his critics: those who don't appreciate Chance Meetings are not honest, authentic, heart-big enough. You may have caught on by now: Chance Meetings irked the lymph juice out of me.

"What is a story?" Saroyan asks. Right away I'm ticked off. That designation, "story," is arch and self-indulgent: affected. It implies a correspondence, doncha know, between Saroyan and the Primitive Bard, the Ancient Carrier-On of National Traditions….

And what does "story" mean? "It's a writer with his mind made up to tell a story. To remember something, or to invent something. (It comes to the same thing.)" Like hell it does. But accurate, artless remembering—or the presumption of such—has been indispensable to Saroyan's renown: to any Ethnic Naïve's renown. In comparison, consciously created art is like a plastic shoe: unnatural, unwholesome. Saroyan doesn't make, he finds. To criticize him is to criticize his past, even his race. This puts the reviewer right where Saroyan … would want him: in a very uncomfortable spot.

The memoir genre, then, is automatic for Saroyan: an overt statement of what, in actuality, he has been doing—or pretending to do—since nineteen thirty-something. This, his eighth memoir, never achieves even "story" form: at best it's anecdotal; at worst it's just muttering. The kind of narrative you'd shake from a hearth-drowsy, cantankerous old man…. It's as if Saroyan were doing us a big favor. His book has the disjoint, uncoordinated wobble of new-born crane flies….

Saroyan, of course, has been richly overrated: his time ran out with Vo-Mag's, with WPA murals and their peculiar bluff intenseness. He was always ethnic naïve, repetitive, sentimental, pompous. And, in that, Chance Meetings is involuntary self-burlesque…. Saroyan has written the Armenian Snow White: a Donald Barthelme performance. Remembering breaks down. Consciously or unconsciously the Ethnic Naïve has become the Ethnic Absurd. Which is, I guess, some small improvement. (p. 600)

D. Keith Mano, "Gnomic Naive," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1978; 150 East 35th St., New York, N. Y. 10016), May 12, 1978, pp. 599-600.

Nicholas J. Loprete

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Chance meetings, William Saroyan tells us, are sometimes memorable because they have a definite starting and stopping point and take on a quality of art, something concluded and whole, which cannot be improved upon. In [Chance Meetings] Mr. Saroyan proceeds to prove his thesis…. Chance Meetings is a sketchbook, a homily, a philosophy of the self written from a unique perspective about "the stragglers everywhere and all the time, from the very beginning of one's memory."… (p. 121)

It is obvious that he is still having "the time of his life," and the undeniable charm of Saroyan the writer still exists, along with a sentimentality which threatens to sink the book. In less certain hands the danger would become reality, but Mr. Saroyan's warmth and irreverence save the day. "Human memory works its own wheel, and stops where it will, entirely without reference to the last stop, and with no connection with the next." (p. 122)

Nicholas J. Loprete, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), July, 1978.


Saroyan, William (Vol. 1)


Saroyan, William (Vol. 29)