LAST RITES: The Death of William Saroyan by Aram Saroyan

LAST RITES: The Death of William Saroyan

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Despite one moving moment of deathbed reconciliation, this short book--the journal Saroyan kept while his famous father was dying from cancer in April 1981--is essentially a hate letter from son to father; and though Saroyan Sr. may well have been the emotionally crippled monster portrayed here, Saroyan Jr.'s repetitious, unevenly written, often self-serving testimony doesn't ever completely convince. William Saroyan is dying at his house in Fresno. He angrily spurns visits from son Aram and daughter Lucy--children of a brief, violently unhappy marriage. And Aram, while getting reports of Saroyan's condition from doctors and cousins, bitterly reminisces--about Saroyan's verbal attacks on the ex-Mrs. Saroyan, about things Saroyan said to 13-year-old Aram (""an act of deep psychological violence""), about the last letter he got from Saroyan (""He wanted me to die""). Also, Aram analyzes his father's character--a ""particular combination of violence and cowardice""--and sketches in a devastating psychological portrait: orphaned at an early age, Saroyan ""put himself emotionally on ice,"" loving only himself. . . and his fame. Eventually, however, though the dying Saroyan continues to deny his children (""a last dance into the nether depths of his violence at us""), a hospital visit is arranged for Aram and his young daughter--and Saroyan responds at last: ""I felt instantaneously that we were speaking both in the moment and at the same time saying goodbye for our whole lives."" Powerful material--but, unfortunately, the intensely subjective treatment is more often petulant or maudlin than genuinely self-aware; and the prose, which sometimes has a strong, Saroyanesque plain-ness, frequently drifts into pretension or psychobabble. (Saroyan uses the word ""emotional"" the way other writers use commas.) Still: the combination of the deathbed situation and the fierce Saroyan Sr. personality is occasionally potent here--so quite a few readers will be held, even some of those who find Saroyan Jr. neither appealing nor persuasive.

Pub Date: Aug. 5th, 1982
Publisher: Morrow