Wednesday, August 13, 2008

He Flies Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease

He Flies through the Air with the Greatest of Ease: A William Saroyan Reader
Edited by William E. Justice
Heyday Books, $24.95 paper
ISBN 978-1-59714-090-4

Forgotten Bread: First-Generation Armenian American Writers
Edited by David Kherdian
Heyday Books, $29.95 cloth
ISBN 978-1-59714-069-0

Berkeley’s Heyday Books and Heyday Institute are known for their beautifully crafted books by California writers and about California history, culture, natural history, literature, poetry, art, photography and Indian life. This year saw the publication of two more quality projects, a William Saroyan reader and Forgotten Bread, a literary anthology of Armenian American writing by first generation writers.

Outside of the American Armenian community, and central California, William Saroyan is a tough sell. In his writing life, he was outdone by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, and he ended his life as an eccentric figure known more for his quirks than his literature. But this is a writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Time of Your Life (1939). He is also considered the grandfather of Armenian American letters, a man who can be connected to a number of writers today in influence and often direct contact. Stories are numerous about encounters with Saroyan at his house in Fresno, how he collected labels from cans of food that he consumed, writing the date and time on each, how he collected almost every scrap of minutiae from his 72 years on earth. He also gave advice to young writers like Mark Arax. “Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might,” he wrote. “When you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Time has not been kind to Saroyan’s legacy. His work is somewhat out of fashion now. His eccentric lifestyle, his alcohol and gambling problems, all seem to overshadow his writing. Yet, there is a yearning for Saroyan’s small town life as described in The Human Comedy, or his simple values as expressed in his short fiction.

It is on the occasion of the great man’s one hundredth birthday that Heyday has published a new Saroyan reader. William E. Justice, editor of Essential Saroyan, has put together a competent selection of Saroyan’s work that includes previously published and unpublished material.

The book contains selections from The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, Inhale and Exhale, The Trouble With Tigers, and The Whole Voyald. The play The Time of Your Life is included here, but not The Human Comedy. We are also treated to some of Saroyan’s unpublished autobiographical writing.

Saroyan’s prose is richer than Hemingway’s, and tilts a bit toward the sentimental, but his stories ring with truth and tragedy, simmering with character. In this collection we also see his experimentation with form and function. Saroyan’s work often straddles the line between the classic fiction of early twentieth century American prose and more modern, fragmented writing common to the Beat writers and middle to late century work.

Yet, the question remains: does this 100 year old writer and his body of work merit a new reader? Justice defends his collection in his Editor’s Preface: “It is true that William Saroyan is not as widely read as he once was. The Critics are blamed for this so that they might be entreated, through the implied flattery, to aid in his rehabilitation.” He goes on to say that it is up to teachers, reviewers and of course, readers to continue promoting Saroyan’s literary legacy. Justice believes a writer like Saroyan will always be passed, hand to hand, among dedicated readers.

I would agree that there is great value to Saroyan’s work. I love the poignancy of his characters, the richness of setting, even if his work is anachronistic today. In many ways, we are all still searching for that America, Saroyan’s America, one that has been lost to a dangerous society filled with strangers living next door, and people afraid to come out and mingle with the neighbors on their block.

Like Sherwood Anderson, William Saroyan chronicles small town life. Even though he is a California writer, and sometimes categorized erroneously as just an ethnic writer, he should still be read, if only to find what we have lost here in America.

David Kherdian literally recovers and brings together what his culture has lost—the voice of the Diaspora, the sacred stories of a people displaced after genocide. His writers are the survivors, and he brings us their words in a beautiful book that contains some of the best writing of those first generation Armenian Americans, introduced in thoughtful essays by second generation writers like Mark Arax and Aram Saroyan.

The best of the work here contains tendrils of sadness mixed with the warmth and humanity of family and cultural ritual. There is a healthy helping of poetry, story, essay, and selections from longer works, and the authors run the gamut from the well-known like William Saroyan, to writers unfamiliar to most Americans.

Kherdian also includes the fruits of his deep and voluminous research. There is a glossary of Armenian phrases, several appendices including a checklist of authors’ works, biographies, and even a listing of some of the periodicals where the works first appeared. The book is the complete package, a self-contained world that conveys the richness and tragedy of the Armenian Diaspora.

Both books are beautiful to behold, with rich, artistic cover art and fine paper. They are necessary books for Californians, and especially Armenians, but in this melting pot of a country, celebrating the conglomeration of cultures has become a common cause. Maybe it is time to take another look at William Saroyan, reading him in the light of his Armenian and American background. Forgotten Bread gives us a primer for one of America’s fastest growing ethnic groups. The stories, values and traditions of a culture should never be subsumed in the greater milieu of American society. Thanks to Heyday, we have two books that bring us closer to an understanding of American Armenians. Now it is incumbent on us to read them.

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