William Saroyan is the most well-known American/Armenian writer. His family arrived, like so many of the Armenian diaspora, fleeing the genocide at the tail of end of the Ottoman Empire. Saroyan had the seeds of greatness and genius. I think that is what made reading this biography harder. This biography was definitely not a ‘puff piece’ about Saroyan. Saroyan’s flaws, and if Leggett is to believed there were many, were all on display. For the sake of organization, I will focus on three major flaws, which all played off each other, and one observation – flaws that were not overcome, but which in the end defeated him and robbed the world of what might have been a transformative talent.
The first issue of note is that Bill Saroyan did not have discipline, especially to read. I have not ever met (or read) a writer who does not read. That is like a filmmaker who does not like to watch films; a cook who does not like to eat. Saroyan had no patience to read, preferring to write, which is why his writing was adolescent. He never built it. His greatest work was his first, “A Daring Young Man On A Flying Trapeze”, which was never equaled because his craft never improved by exposing it to others. Writers read, period. Had he read as much as he gambled and caroused, his craft would have matured, his genius would have been polished and he could have been one of the best.
Which brings me to the second point; Saroyan seems to have had a real problem with discipline; specifically, if Leggett is to be believed he had addiction problems. While certainly to alcohol, his worst addiction was to gambling. Spending hours, losing thousands of dollars in one night; running from creditors, stopping off at important moments instead to gamble. Using limited money available to try and get that big win which would solve his problems. His gambling kept him always with money problems; ruined relationships as he had to ask for loan after loan; and destroyed his ability to write. Instead of building wealth, investing the first fruits and watching those grow over a lifetime of successful writing, he found himself slipping behind his peers (Hemingway and Steinbeck) in fame and wealth, which led to resentment.
Which is the third character flaw, Saroyan believed he was better than everyone else, and that made him resentful. He considered his writing superior, which meant he could not take advice (which, in the absence of reading, was the only way to improve); he ruined professional relationships by demanding more money than offered and acting slighted when those negotiations failed; he had a permanent allergy to authority which caused most of the middle of his life to be ruined by his run-ins with the military after he was drafted into WWII. He refused to bow his head and be a soldier, it was beneath him. This flaw, in the end, destroyed his relationship with his wife and his children as well.
Saroyan’s was a sad life indeed, which made this book hard to read.
Now the observation; William Saroyan it seems visited Armenia on several occasions. But he did not find anything remarkable in his homeland. This biography is full of Armenian names; and he always identified first and foremost as an Armenian, but that did not translate into a supernatural love for his rocky bit of earth, as it does for some people who go there – but not all. It was incidental to his Armenian-ness. Incidentally, this is the reputation that the Armenian diaspora has. They build their whole sense of self around being Armenian, but can’t be bothered, mostly, to turn that into a love of an ancient land under a mountain and between two great seas. And, for this reason, and I think that for William Saroyan it might have been decisive, they do not allow Armenia to save their lives. If Bill had connected with his land, he might have been saved. As it was, his life was lived from one ruin to another. And that is the saddest thing in the world.