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KING PACK RAT : The Necropolis of William Saroyan

September 06, 1987|KEITH ABBOTT | Keith Abbott is a novelist living in Berkeley; his next book, "The First Thing Coming," will be published this October.

The more junk I have, the safer I am. Death will have to find its way through the clutter.

--WILLIAM SAROYAN, "NOT DYING"

UPON HIS DEATH in 1981, William Saroyan left two houses in Fresno, an apartment in Paris and his sister's house in San Francisco, all of them full of personal effects. There was nothing unusual in this. Authors are expected to leave behind archives for study. Saroyan, though, went a touch further. He created a foundation in his own name, bequeathing all his future earnings to finance studies of William Saroyan. This was egocentric enough, but what was unusual wasn't his will but what he left to that foundation.

Besides thousands of pages of daily diaries, hundreds of novels, stories and plays, Saroyan saved his first typewriter, his 1929 and 1931 Fresno library cards, used typewriter ribbons, jars of spare change and pebbles, trunks of seaside rocks and broken clocks, phone books filled with timed and dated drawings, boxes of junk mail and envelopes of his mustache clippings.

And since the Fresno-born Saroyan skyrocketed to fame during the Depression as a short-story writer, became a prize winner as a dramatist during the 1940s and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and Europe throughout the '50s, his estate is more than just a monument to self-documentation or a warehouse of precious heirlooms. The archive contains daily accounts in journals and complete correspondence with all his many famous acquaintances. For American literature, the estate has been called "a trove to rival the storehouse of Charles Foster Kane." As a historical record, the archive is regarded as "immensely valuable" by Barlow Der Mugrdechian, a professor at the Center for Armenian Studies at Cal State Fresno; already work has begun on an examination of the last 20 years of Saroyan's life, when he was a frequent guest in Soviet Armenia, retracing his family's roots, investigating the Armenian Diaspora and writing his autobiographical essays on the immigrant experience.

Saroyan understood the multicultural importance of his huge, self-appointed task. Leaving his royalties to underwrite studies of his writings made financial sense--the archive was too bulky for most university libraries to store, let alone to pay to catalogue (a task now in progress at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library). When the cataloguing of the literary manuscripts is finished, sometime next year, scholars chosen by the Saroyan Foundation will set to work. An authorized biography will be written, followed by the publication of collected letters. After that, presumably, a lemming frenzy of Ph.D. candidates will blanket the remains. As one historian has pointed out, the collection's rich variety of theatrical and film information alone guarantees that it will be used by a multitude of scholars, some with only peripheral interest in the writer.

When Peter Howard, a nationally known rare-book dealer, was called in by the executors to appraise the literary portions of the Saroyan estate, its size and variousness was puzzling, because it was clear that Saroyan didn't collect this for his own or anyone else's gain. One of Saroyan's more mysterious habits was churning out thousands of drawings, but to Howard's extensive knowledge, only a few books decorated with his art have ever been on the market. Unlike other artists, who often gift their less fortunate friends with salable items or shore up their own finances with sales of selected memorabilia, Saroyan hardly ever let any go.

What was the master plan for all the other stuff ?

HOWARD'S STORE IS CALLED Serendipity Books, and it is located in a former shop for home brewers and wine makers on University Avenue in Berkeley. The vague aroma of cork and barley malt syrup lingers in the air, but now thousands of books line the walls and fill the rooms of the large building.

A tall, balding man with a slight stoop, Howard wears loose, comfortable and unremarkable clothes. He is given to quick shifts of mood, and has other passions besides collecting books. During the spring and summer, he sometimes dons a San Francisco Giants baseball cap or windbreaker. When he can't be at the ballpark (or when there's an away game), he listens to the Giants on the radio. Scattered around Serendipity are various sports souvenirs: a wooden statue of a batter with moveable arms, a photograph of the Wilson, Kan., team for 1914 and a framed photograph of a young, confident and handsome Saroyan smiling down at an inflatable plastic baseball bat.

With more than 200,000 books in his store, Howard clearly is someone in touch with the habits of accumulation. But when the subject of the Saroyan archive comes up, even he is amazed at the size of the man's holdings.

For an appraisal catalogue, Howard was required to list, describe and price all the printed and literary portions of Saroyan's estate, and, he says, "it took 5 1/2 months. The first portion I was given came in 207 boxes, each box one cubic foot. My catalogue totaled 336 pages."

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