As readers of Last Rites (1982) well know, the younger Saroyan has an intense personal stake in portraying his famous father...

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WILLIAM SAROYAN

As readers of Last Rites (1982) well know, the younger Saroyan has an intense personal stake in portraying his famous father as a psychic cripple, virtually incapable of love. So it's not surprising that this short biography emphasizes that diagnosis (which could be convincing in the right hands) with relentless heavy-handedness--producing a lopsided psycho-portrait of limited value. Saroyan Sr. was put in an orphanage for five crucial early years when his father died: this resulted in a ""psychic freeze"" at age three--a metaphor that is elaborately belabored throughout (""frozen lakes"" and such). Young William grew up with all tender feelings buried deep, totally self-involved, even in his writing--with ""characters who are drawn essentially from his own psychological makeup, rather than from the world at large."" Because of this deep wound he remained ""an entertainer"" rather than a fully serious writer: ""he will inevitably stop short of any real confrontation with the deepest implications of his own work""; he was ""an apologist for the American Dream, even when he'd promised to uncover its dark underside."" His marriage to young deb/actress Carol Marcus was virtually doomed from the start; love was at best a source of conflict, at worst impossible (""Leaving aside the hypothesed interior freeze, he would seem generally to have had the tendencies of an obsessive-compulsive character type""--and ""narcissistic personality disorder."") He gambled compulsively, displayed an anti-Semitism of ""shocking virulence"" when he learned that Carol was Jewish. And his later, lonely years were grim confirmation that ""letting go--to himself and others--seemingly threatened him with nothing short of personal extinction."" An implausible psychological interpretation? Not necessarily. But biographer Saroyan lays it on too quickly and thickly, without the groundwork of reputable psychoanalytic life-history; his dependence on his mother as a major source (often without corroboration) seems less than scrupulous; his thesis over-reaches frequently, as when WS' refusal of the Pulitzer Prize is seen in Freudian terms. And, perhaps most seriously, the appraisal of the Saroyan canon here is designed to fit the psychology: though some early work is praised, the limitations are stressed throughout--and, typically, the much-acclaimed Obituaries (1979) isn't even mentioned. Saroyan from a distinct, perhaps-obtuse angle, then--of some interest, but to be handled with care.

Pub Date: June 30, 1983

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1983