SAROYAN: A Biography by Lawrence & Barry Gifford Lee

SAROYAN: A Biography

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More a gathering of facts and testimony than a full-fledged biography, this study of playwright/storyteller William Saroyan is also limited by its hapless, bewildering, downright perverse structure: the first half of the book covers Saroyan's peak-of-fame years, from 1940 to 1950--and only afterwards do the authors go back to the early years of this intensely autobiographical writer and psychologically complex man. Thus, without having heard more than a passing reference to Saroyan's first two stage successes, the reader is presented with a super-famous Saroyan working on his third play (Love's Old Sweet Song)--with no real sense of the shape of his remarkable career, not to mention the development of his writing. More importantly, Saroyan-the-man--noisy, self-involved, yet sweet--arrives out of nowhere, making it impossible to give much credence to the authors' vague, simplistic premise here: Saroyan's unhappy WW II experiences (chiefly a run-in with military psychiatry) are primarily what made him a bitter, unstable, unlovable man--compulsively gambling, losing his wife with his uncontrolled jealousy, while turning from generalized America to ""his ethnic Armenian nature"" (and to death) in his work. The book's second half, then, begins with Saroyan's ethnic heritage and California childhood--marked by his father's death and an orphanage stay; the authors refer to the psychological theory of ""frozen"" emotion in Aram Saroyan's 1983 biography, with one paragraph of comment. But, as ambitious Willie, largely self-taught, carves out his precocious literary career, there's no steady attempt to understand his motivations or personality. And, when the narrative then jumps back to 1950, Saroyan's largely unhappy last 30 years--fights with his children, worsening deafness, erratic work and raised Armenian consciousness--are barely sketched in, with increasing dependence on Aram Saroyan's Last Rites and on tape-recorded chunks from ex-wife Carol and other relatives. Throughout, in fact, much of the text is given over to chatty testimony from family (including mother-in-law Rosheen) and friends. So, though misconceived and unsatisfying as a biography, with the rise-and-fall drama neither dramatized nor illuminated, this disappointing book does offer valuable raw material--if, thanks to Aram Saroyan's bitter writings, no surprises.

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 1984
ISBN: 156025761X
Publisher: Harper & Row