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The Time of His Life

Charles Wright reviews John Leggett's new biography of William Saroyan. logo

Twenty-eight years ago, John Leggett published Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies, a biographical double-bill about Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen, contemporaries who produced successful first novels and committed suicide before the critical huzzahs had died out. Lockridge wrote the epic, experimental Raintree County; Heggen was author of Mister Roberts and co-author of the long-running Broadway play based on it. Appearing before biography was the boom industry in print and film that it is today, Ross and Tom became a cause célèbre among American intellectuals, who construed it as a cautionary tale about the perils of early success and disproportionate praise.

Leggett is himself a novelist, though not well known as such. He served in World War II and did time as editor at a couple of big-name publishing houses. When Ross and Tom came out, he was director of the august University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, a post he held for 18 years. Retired from Iowa, he lives now in California, where he directs the Napa Valley Writers' Conference. Three weeks ago, Leggett turned 85. Knopf is marking that landmark with the release of his new book, A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan (462 pages, $30).

Saroyan, with that lilting Armenian surname and picturesque moustache, is a blast from the past. In the 1930s and the first half of the '40s, he enjoyed a vast readership for the whimsical, warm-hearted plays and short stories that poured from his pen. Later, Saroyan's fame owed as much to his exhibitionistic personality as to any particular literary achievement. He was as hard-drinking as Papa Hemingway, with a bitter, sharp tongue like Mencken or Woollcott (though lacking their erudition), and Lillian Hellman's tenacity with a grudge. For much of the 20th century, he was a household word, a staple of pop culture -- "Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?" queries a patter song in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey.

Well, Saroyan never wrote a great play. His dramas are hardly revived; most of his books are out of print. The distinctively Saroyanesque expression of carpe diem -- "in the time of your life, live" -- and his confidence in mankind's essential lovableness are likely to strike contemporary audiences as simplistic, even puerile. The charming oddballs and rootless losers he dreamed up seem contrived. He's probably too obscure now to rate a reference on a television quiz show, except in connection with the silly novelty song, "Come On-A My House (My House, I'm Gonna Give You Candy)," which he wrote with his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian.

Born in Fresno, California, in 1908 to impoverished Armenian immigrants, Saroyan lost his father at an early age and spent five years in an orphanage. He abandoned high school to work as a bicycle messenger, delivering telegrams like Homer Macauley, protagonist of his 1943 novel, The Human Comedy. Eventually, he found his way to New York City where, in the grand tradition of ambitious American autodidacts, he claimed a seat in the main reading room of the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, making that institution his university.

Few literary or theatrical careers have begun with greater promise than Saroyan's. Seldom in the history of American publishing have short story collections become bestsellers; but The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, Saroyan's first book, did. Then, in 1940, his second Broadway play, The Time of Your Life, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. By then the playwright was sufficiently swellheaded to refuse the Pulitzer out of pique that the Prize Committee had neglected to honor his first Broadway effort, My Heart's in the Highlands, the year before. Later, Saroyan, along with his fellow Californian, John Steinbeck, was ostensibly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The playwright had every intention of accepting that honor, but Steinbeck received the nod instead.

John Leggett
Saroyan was prolific, dashing off tales and dialogue in bursts of inspiration, seldom at a loss for plot or character. But he lacked discipline for revising what he wrote and refused to entertain constructive criticism, even from seasoned professionals such as Bennett Cerf, George Abbott, and Sanford Meisner. His plays, especially the one-acts, were widely produced; his short stories appeared in a variety of magazines, from special-interest journals such as Story to general-circulation slicks like the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, and Playboy. His personal saga, as chronicled in A Daring Young Man, is a constant repetition of bad-boy deportment. His temper was fierce and quick to flare; he never admitted error. He fought with everyone -- relatives, agents, editors, publishers, theater directors, producers and, especially, the Internal Revenue Service. Throughout adulthood, Saroyan shifted his residence from one coast to the other. He left his wife when he discovered she had concealed the fact that she is Jewish; then he remarried her only to divorce again. He lurched from literary agency to literary agency and from publishing house to publishing house. He gambled away several fortunes on horses, poker, baccarrat, even baseball. In sum, he learned little, if anything, from experience; and his talent proved too facile, his nature too impatient for creating much that is deep or likely to last.

Admirers of the streamlined structure and vivid, nonacademic prose of Ross and Tom will find much to esteem in A Daring Young Man, as well. Here, as in Ross and Tom, Leggett avoids the prolixity that mars a great deal of contemporary biography. He doesn't flaunt his years of labor by reciting banal, unenlightening facts his research has uncovered; he doesn't ramble on in name-dropping asides and tangential footnotes. He doesn't blaze his own trail, either. While Leggett's decision, in Ross and Tom, to tell in counterpoint the stories of artists who never met but suffered similar fates resulted in a work of striking originality, A Daring Young Man is a conventional literary profile. What distinguishes it, though, are the narrative vigor of Leggett's prose, which reads like a good novel, and the complete absence of psychological speculation. As in Ross and Tom, Leggett permits the most dramatic details of his subject's life to speak for themselves -- and, for the most part, they do so eloquently.

If Saroyan's an odd topic for a mainstream publishing house in 2002, he's an understandable choice for the author of Ross and Tom. Saroyan's success, like that of Lockridge and Heggen, was meteoric; his career, like theirs, burned out quickly. What a difference, though: Heggen and Lockridge died young; Saroyan hung on to age 73, keeping a high, often embarrassing public profile. Late in life, he wrote volumes of autobiography that achieved a certain popularity; but nothing he published after World War II had the appeal of early plays like The Man with His Heart in the Highlands and Hello Out There, or of his first novel, The Human Comedy.

A contemporary of Saroyan's recently commented to this reviewer that it's impossible to fathom the degree and longevity of the playwright's fame without taking account of the personal magnetism that lent a certain charm to his conceit and pushiness. Leggett has assembled the salient facts of Saroyan's life and conveyed them in lively form. He hasn't conjured the charisma that must have been Saroyan's stock-in-trade and the principal secret of his success. Without that, the portrait, however well-told, is incomplete and a little mysterious.

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