Swans Commentary » swans.com March 9, 2009  



William Saroyan's Where The Bones Go


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Saroyan, William: Where The Bones Go, edited by Robert Setrakian, The Press at California State University Fresno, 2002, ISBN 0-912201-36-3, 141 pages


(Swans - March 9, 2009)   William Saroyan was an early love. I discovered him when I was a teenager and the love affair remained hot and heavy for some fifteen years. The bait that I swallowed whole was the short story collection, The Flying Young Man On The Flying Trapeze. It seemed to me that Saroyan was the only writer I had come across who was able to dramatize and decipher the grains of sand that, in some arcane but translatable language, contained all of life's secrets. While other writers wove tales, created suspense, developed, then resolved conflicts, Saroyan seemed to be stubbornly ethereal -- communing with a deeper consciousness that bypassed the mundane, and yet often used the mundane as a starting point for revealing life's mysteries.

But when I moved to England, I was razzed by Oxbridge-educated literary friends for admiring such a soppy, sentimental, trivial, and Pollyanna-like writer. My reverence for the enchanting Armenian, I must confess, lapsed as I was wooed away by writers such as Gide, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, etc. But occasionally, the old love rekindled and I found myself not only re-reading the early works but actually directing the British premiere of Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers and, thrill-of-all thrills, actually corresponding with the holy man himself.

Referring to the dramatists who were nudging him off the pedestal on which he had been placed in the late 1930s and '40s, Saroyan wrote in a letter dated March 29, 1961:

...the time is coming when the greatest dramas will be laughable, parodies almost, to the human race in general. Now the theatre belongs to a kind of specialist who is actually very backward. Tortured plays, tortured audiences; well, when the audiences aren't tortured, as we must presume they shall eventually become, a whole new order of drama has got to come along; Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Genet et al are serving that new order well by making the old as sick as it is possible to be an hour or two before death itself. Genius and trauma are the cliché partnership, but there are other partners for genius -- but not now, maybe, and that's a little of the reason my stuff can annoy some people terribly. They see all in themselves and around them as sickness and impending death, and they have got to be impatient with anything else...

This, of course, was Saroyan the Outsider speaking, a writer whose plays such as Sam Ego's House and Jim Dandy, Fat Man in a Famine were rejected by the main stream critics who regularly looked back fondly to the early award-winning works like The Time of Your Life and My Heart's In The Highland as freak successes by a writer who obviously was fixated in another period -- another style -- and had little or nothing to say to the Swinging Sixties or beyond. But the gentle, probing, humanistic outlook that enriched those early works could just as readily have been found in the later, rejected plays, if the times hadn't had such a low estimation of their wayward sentimentality.

Where The Bones Go, Saroyan's posthumous prose work, was undertaken in his last years, when he was suffering from prostate cancer and looking death in the eye. The manuscript was uncovered ten years after his death in l981 and represents the work of a man who, having maintained all of his life by assembling words to convey his insights about the human condition, was addicted to writing and used it to sustain what little there remained of his life. To the last breath he took, Saroyan was playfully Saroyanesque, and Where The Bones Go is full of short, terse, whimsical prose that virtually never descends into self-pity. Saroyan's most passionate love affair was with life itself and it sustained him, as he revered it, to the very end of his days.

The book, a fragile l40 pages, masterfully edited by Robert Setrakian, is divided into seven sections, beginning with Saroyan's meditation on death that, of course, plunges him into celebratory memories of life. There are short essays on writing, music, films and theatre, memories of Fresno where he was born and raised and whose influences he never forgot, as well as a section of obituaries in which he recreates people such as Nelson Rockefeller, Charlie Chaplin, Walter White, James Joyce, Leonard Lyons, etc. Everywhere, in each brief flurry of recollection, the Saroyanesque sense of wonder and whimsy shines through, enlivening the most ordinary events and recalling people he knew or wished he had known. There is a touching, vulnerable reverie over a suppressed love for a lovely young understudy in The Time of Your Life and reflections on commonplace subjects such as his weakness for Fig Newtons and stuffed grape leaves.

Everywhere, Saroyan celebrates the ordinary, the inane, the overlooked, and the commonplace -- seeing all of these as elements in a multifarious tapestry, which would be part of our every-day life, if only we had the insight to recognize it. Sprinkled through its pages is the author's impregnable bond with Armenia; an historical rootedness that he can never shake off. It is as if everything that Saroyan was, and every word he ever wrote, was in some way fashioned by those Armenian roots; a land that, although virtually obliterated, Saroyan manages lovingly to recreate.

To someone who loved life as devoutly as Saroyan did, death appears as a hideous atrocity that makes one loathe its inevitability. Once, when asked about his profession, he replied: "My work is writing, but my real work is being." Thankfully, that celebration of "being" permeates every page of Where The Bones Go and, so long as the books, the plays, and the stories survive, Saroyan can be said to have outwitted his nemesis, death.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/cmarow131.html
Published March 9, 2009