Madness in My Family

(image Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

When Saroyan, a biography of my father William Saroyan by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, was published in 1986, I was coming off a five-year run during which I wrote three books about my family and couldn’t handle sitting down to read another word about them. A quarter of a century later, with almost all of its subjects now gone, I came across a copy of Saroyan in the recently-closed Cosmopolitan Bookstore on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, bought it and read it through virtually without stopping. The primary difference between my books as well as the one by the late John Leggett, and Saroyan is that a third to a half of it comprises recorded testimony by my father’s friends and relatives.

It’s an unexpected perk of having a famous family member that this public accounting may occur apart from one’s own efforts. Specifically, Saroyan gave me a window on my father’s last years when I’d been estranged from him. While abusing not only his immediate family but, among others, his devoted cousin and best friend Archie Minasian, he made decisions about his estate that had unfortunate, lasting repercussions. The behavior I experienced is echoed and given context by his behavior with others recorded in Saroyan.  These witnesses confirm what I saw, which in a way depersonalizes what happened and makes it easier to muster compassion for him.

Early on Minasian speaks about the cruelty of their maternal uncle, Aram Saroyan, their mothers’ younger brother who became for both boys a surrogate father, their own fathers having died when the cousins were still in early childhood.

“You know, you boys don’t deserve to walk on streets. Walk through alleys,” Minasian quotes their wealthy uncle. “Walk through alleys, where you belong, streets are for people.”

Belonging to the first Armenian American-born generation of a then-despised minority in Fresno, both boys were nascent artists who managed to nurture each other. Having survived Fresno, and his Uncle Aram’s obtusity, my father at 26 experienced the meteoric rise of a literary legend. His career peaked in the 1930s and early 1940s when as a short-story writer (The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze), Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (The Time of Your Life), and novelist (The Human Comedy), he knew something like the combined popular and critical success that F. Scott Fitzgerald had known during the 1920s. A handsome, outspoken young man-about-town, he quickly became a favorite of gossip columnists like Leonard Lyons in New York and Herb Caen in San Francisco, now his home city. Minasian, five years younger and only posthumously beginning to receive his due as a poet, never had a literary career, but he remained steadfastly loyal to his famous cousin through every phase of his life.

When Saroyan was drafted in his mid-thirties, the devil-may-care persona that had endeared him to the columnists ran up against rigid military protocol, and he badly miscalculated the breathing room permitted his anarchistic spirit.  Assigned to write the script for an army training film on how to load a boxcar with military supplies, he turned in a one-line script: “Loading a box car is easy.”  After this was summarily rejected and he was sent on a tour of army bases to review the procedure in different settings—the first articles loaded would be the last unloaded etc. ‚ he altered the single-line script by one word: “Loading a box car is difficult” — with predictably dire consequences. The caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, one of Saroyan’s small number of close friends, reports:

That kind of joke didn’t go in the army.

They had him cleaning latrines for months.  And they broke him. They broke his spirit. He was in the hospital, psychiatric, and they just knocked him out. They knocked him out of the box, and he never quite recovered from it.

He tried to figure it out. He became philosophical and he became cerebral. It didn’t work.

The young writer who handled the Depression with charming psychological elan, and then knew the sort of success that only a handful of writers knew in his century, was caught up short by the war, by a marriage he wasn’t suited for, and by the change of mood in the post-war American world — all of it coming with the onset of middle-age.

What seems brave in his odyssey is that unlike the other literary movie-stars of his ilk, Fitzgerald and Kerouac, whose incandescent moment also passed and both of whom died in their forties, he lived a full life span, although henceforth he seemed to grapple with a more-or-less continuous low-grade depression. He died at 72 in 1981. During his last days, when he wouldn’t answer his home phone, Minasian would take a chance and drive down from Palo Alto to Fresno, hoping for a visit, sometimes to meet a dour-faced Saroyan at his door and turn around and head home.

The writer, now estranged from family and friends alike, with his lifelong deafness a deepening problem, fired his long-time lawyer when he advised against disinheriting his children, and left his literary estate in the hands of a Fresno wine merchant he’d met only once, the son of a wealthy Armenian when Saroyan was growing up. In the last stages of cancer, he sought out and found people who would literally ‘yes’ him to death. Having flirted most of his life with pathology in various forms, including a gambling addiction that kept him in the hole when he earned more money than virtually any other American writer of his generation, he went crazy.

I already knew his life was in certain respects a cautionary tale, and in fact my own books alerted Lee and Gifford that their project wasn’t what they’d anticipated. Having undertaken a book in the same vein as Jack’s Book, their oral biography of Jack Kerouac, they ended with one in which the oral testimony amplifies and elaborates rather than dominates. For aside from my mother, twice his ex-wife, and his closest family members, few people knew Saroyan and fewer still were intimates.

I came to know Lawrence (Larry) Lee as a friend while he worked on the book, and was shaken by his death from AIDS only a short time after it was published. In the Bay Area, where we both lived at the time, he was a Peabody-award-winning investigative journalist for KRON, the local NBC affiliate. His second collaboration with the novelist Barry Gifford, Saroyan brought a scrupulous, disinterested mind to my father’s personal history, and incidentally vouchsafed a helpful, temporizing text to his friends and family at large.

Ultimos Ritos, a Spanish translation of Aram Saroyan’s Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, was just published in Argentina.

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