William Saroyan
edited by William E. Justice
Heyday Books ($24.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

One of the most famous and prolific writers of the 20th Century, William Saroyan (1908-1981) left behind famous stories, novels, and dramas, but he also wanted to tell his own tale in artful ways. For him art was an escape from death, and this new Saroyan Reader may once again grant him another spate of immortality.

Occasionally profound, Saroyan was also very quotable. He could give readers reason to pause, especially with his endings, which elaborate rather than pull things together. One could not help but take the rest of the evening off after finishing The Human Comedy, which is sadly not included in the new Reader, although many of his first-person narratives and autobiographical materials are presented instead. In He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease one will find 27 stories (including Saroyan’s transcendental debut “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” which brought him fame in 1934); the play The Time of Your Life (1939), for which he declined the Pulitzer Prize; and the short novelsTracy’s Tiger and My Name is Aram. Editor William E. Justice promises in his preface, “Anyone reading this book with new eyes will be amply rewarded.”

Writers and readers alike are bound to find Saroyan inspiring. Justice includes a lot of selections in which Saroyan wrote about the writing process itself, especially this fascinating stretch from the autobiographical The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills:

To write is not the same as to tell stories.


To be a writer is to be in the streets. The people in the streets are the book.


I do not know what makes a writer, but it probably isn’t happiness. A happy boy or man is not apt to need to write. But was there ever a happy boy? Is there ever a happy man?


For the subject of the book is not so much myself, now and sometime ago, as it is the action of the human soul, to which there is no start or stop.

Saroyan, who is noted to have been influenced by Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and William Blake, was a poetic writer; his sentences, especially the ones with lists or strung together with “ands” “or” and “but,” have a rhythmic ring to them. Yet he also belongs in the creative nonfiction genre. Justice notes that Saroyan influenced Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Kenneth Patchen, and that the New Journalists owe him a large debt.

Saroyan decided to become a writer at an early age. He was born in Fresno, California, an Armenian settlement in the Central Valley of California. Saroyan wrote much about being Armenian, but he was too American to be very exotic, except for the unusual Armenian names of his characters. He was already famous by the end of World War II, which he became notorious for protesting against despite having been in the military service. He had a failed marriage and two children, and spent much of his later life in Paris. After his death, his ashes were divided between Fresno and Armenia.

This new Reader—a previous one from 1958 contains an introduction by William’s son Aram Saroyan—focuses on his later writings, but one book is not enough to get all one can from Saroyan. Justice succeeds, however, in getting you to want to read more from this successful writer. Saroyan was an ordinary guy who delivered telegrams, gambled, and had family stories to tell; he also commented about the social, political, and racial issues of his day. He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease helps us remember his massive contribution to world literature by plumbing some of his darker places.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009