By JAMES R. KINCAID
William Saroyan once tossed out a joke on Hemingway’s ”Death in the Afternoon.” Hemingway, who was amused by nothing, responded by threatening to ”push your puss in” and issuing a prediction on what lay ahead for the then-hot Saroyan: ”We’ve seen them come and go. Good ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan. We’ve seen them go a long way and we’ve seen them not come back and nobody even asked where they was gone. They forget quick, Mr. Saroyan.”
Saroyan’s light sneer had appeared in his extraordinary debut volume of short stories, ”The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” That 1934 triumph was followed by a succession of hits as Saroyan took over Broadway, Hollywood and the bookstores from 1939 to 1943. Of course, he did no such thing, but that’s the way he would have put it, self-trumpeter that he was. Still, 1939 saw the opening of ”My Heart’s in the Highlands” and ”The Time of Your Life,” winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Critics Circle Award. A few years later (1943) a screenplay he wrote for ”The Human Comedy” won him an Oscar.
And that was it. He wrote for the next 38 years, turned out, it seems, millions of pages, but had more and more difficulty getting attention, even getting published. It was a humiliating confirmation of Hemingway’s bullying forecast. Saroyan is now forgotten; he was forgotten decades before he died. In 1975 he told a friend: ”I have failed. My children have grown up and gone away and do not love me. I have no wealth. I have no fame. I have no real reason to be glad.” By the time he died in 1981, about the only ties he had left were those of resentment. One doesn’t get too much more unremembered than that.
”A Daring Young Man” seems determined to keep things that way. John Leggett’s earlier and much praised ”Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies” was a rich and moving picture of two writers, Ross Lockridge and Tom Heggen, who found themselves chewed alive inside the American success machinery. One can almost hear the blustering, self-satisfied Saroyan booming, ”I know William Saroyan and he’s no Ross Lockridge!” Leggett finds himself trapped by Saroyan’s certainty on this point, unable to fit him into the earlier formula and unable to produce an interesting story, even of failure.
Leggett clearly doesn’t like Saroyan at all, finds his work after 1940 (and much before) unworthy of his notice and seems lukewarm even about the fascinating cast of characters Saroyan bounced around among. Worse, the biography finds no significance in the life it is recounting, is clumsily written and lurches along in an uneven chronological slog. Leggett makes one wish he had taken to heart Thoreau’s stricture on newspapers: why read endless illustrations of the same point?
To be fair, Saroyan’s life really does not conform to the same melodramatic shape that made Lockridge and Heggen such irresistible subjects. While it’s true that he never matched his earlier spectacular success, Saroyan didn’t disappear below the horizon until very late in life. He was a personality and a presence, a well-known writer long after many people remembered what he had written. Even some later works, most notably the first ”Obituaries,” were recognized as sharp and even profound meditations on the past. His life is lumpy and no more well made than his plays. It repeats itself endlessly and keeps coming up for air when it shouldn’t.
I don’t know why anyone would care about this particular life very much, at least not as Leggett writes it. One can, of course, try to write a different book as one reads, imagining a way into a more complex and even likable Saroyan. Earlier biographies, notably Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford’s ”Saroyan” (1984) had at least managed to admire a lot of his writing and make his life a bit mysterious. But with Leggett one must battle the biographer’s knowingness to rethink and reanimate the subject. Leggett writes very often from inside Saroyan, describing for us the details of his minute-by-minute reactions, his rages, his self-deceptions. This could be winningly artless, were the gossipy details ever anything other than superficial and disconnected. Hundreds of passages read like this one, involving his wife, Carol: ”In the taxi, going down to 12th Street, she asked if he was angry at her, and although he was, he denied it. She was petulant, saying that she didn’t like him anymore, and when she left the cab, she walked in the way he recognized as her angry walk.”