Four years ago, in the middle of a snowstorm in upstate New York, I sought refuge in a little used bookstore off a small town’s main highway. As I tried to figure out what I could possibly add to my extensive “To Read” bookshelf, the title on a worn, slightly familiar looking book caught my eye. On the slim spine were the words "The Human Comedy by William Saroyan." How many times, I thought, with a homesick wave, had I seen this little book on my father’s overstuffed shelves? I paid $2.50 for the volume and slipped back out into the big storm, the world suddenly feeling a lot warmer and smaller.
And thus began what has been a deeply personal relationship with the 20th century Armenian American writer William Saroyan. Shocked as I was to discover that Saroyan has been largely underappreciated in the history of American letters, there was one benefit to his relative obscurity: I didn’t know him well enough to know everything he had written. And I decided to keep it that way. I didn’t want to know if Saroyan, like Jane Austen, had finished exactly six novels. I didn’t want to know, as I did with Jack Kerouac, that I had bought and read virtually every word he had ever written. Instead I just looked for Saroyan’s name every time I found myself in a used bookstore, and he became a source of exciting surprise. One time it was The Adventures of Wesley Jackson. Another time it was the first edition of an anthology of plays. Another time it was My Name is Saroyan. None of them had existed in my mind before I found them. None of them have left my heart since.
I fell into Saroyan’s tragic but hopeful universe with The Human Comedy, but it was My Name is Saroyan, the posthumous collection of short pieces that had been printed in the publications of the Armenian Hairenik Association of Boston, that made me feel like I had found a father or a brother in this man I’d never met. The beauty of a collection like My Name is Saroyan is that in the busy insanity of everyday life (particularly at the heart of a college semester), you can take five minutes to ground yourself in the earthy beauty of one brief story and then return to the grind feeling a little less hopeless. Try out one of the often-humorous retellings of an Armenian folktale. Or if you’re a writer, go for “The Poet,” a reflection on trying to teach an earnest young man to write poetry (synonymous, to Saroyan, with teaching someone how to live). But if you only have a few minutes to devote to Saroyan, my suggestion is to read “Hate,” a short story about two brothers, Sirak and Krikor, who during World War II witness the horrific bullying of a young German boy by the war-maddened boys in their town because he extends his refusal of hatred to the Kaiser. Later that night, lying in bed, Sirak asks Krikor if he hates the Germans. “They are the same as all of us,” Krikor replies. And suddenly you feel that if the problems of the world are going to be solved, it’s not going to be by men in suits but by two boys talking to each other in the middle of the night when they should be going to sleep.
Maybe William Saroyan is not your cup of tea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have your own Saroyan—that thing you love but refuse to know everything about, so that when your routines feel monotonous and everything feels like it’s been said, done, heard, and felt a few too many times, you can wander into a bookstore and find a worn down gem that is at once new and familiar. And this is the kind of world I imagine Saroyan would have wanted to live in: one in which we have lived ourselves into histories stuffed with the detail of heritages and everyday experiences but are still able to find delights in unexpected places.
- Nora Curry
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