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William Saroyan's Spellbinding Second Half : MADNESS IN THE FAMILY by William Saroyan, edited by Leo Hamalian (New Directions: $16.95; 160 pp.)

April 10, 1988|Kenneth Atchity | Atchity is executive producer of 16 romantic comedies known as "Shades of Love" being distributed by Lorimar; and adjunct professor of literature at Occidental College

"Najari Levon's Old Country Advice to the Young Americans on How to Live With a Snake," like all the tales in this marvelous little collection, is a story that never ends. The boy who listens trustingly to the storyteller is never satisfied--not because the storyteller is untrustworthy but, the very opposite, because the story is life itself and its texture, not meaning, that finally matters.

William Saroyan died in 1981, without publishing a collection of short stories since "The Whole Voyald" (1956). The stories collected here, many of which appeared, over the 25 years since then in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, represent fully half his writing career which began in 1934 with "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" and became most visible with his novel "The Human Comedy" (1942) and the play for which he refused the Pulitzer Prize "The Time of Your Life" (1939). Editor Leo Hamalian has ably selected moments of sweet familiarity and woven them into a representative tapestry of stylistic, personal, and human characteristics that mark Saroyan as one of the most important American writers of this century.

Saroyan is a powerful narrator in the tradition of Sterne, Melville and Hawthorne for whom plot is a plodder's contrivance and magic lies in sheer spinning. The stories published here combine unforgettably colorful characters with humane and humorous insight--and wit that moves from mordant to murderous. Interspersed with depths of genial cynicism are flashes of perennial wisdom that Saroyan typically presents as tongue in cheek. His is both a more accessible ethnicity than Isaac Singer's and a less erudite and esoteric Americana than Gertrude Stein's "Making of Americans." But with both he shares the spellbinding power of artful narration.

"How to Choose a Wife" is a classic example. The story, presented as a self-deprecating family lament in the fashion of Philip Roth, is a kind of "art of courtly love" in reverse: "How shall you avoid being overwhelmed by the first girl who seems overwhelmed by you, and by her very manner suggests that anything that interferes with the continuing of this overwhelming of one another is an unholy thing, and seems suddenly the most beautiful and exciting creature of her kind, who in turn clearly informs you without saying one word that you are the most handsome and wonderful creature of your kind, both of you going mad and becoming desperately ill. . . . First, go and meet her mother. . . . Think twice about everything, and if it is at all possible think three times."

The imaginary questioner asks, How will I know that it's me who's in love, not a myth of myself this madness has created. The narrator-sage replies: "From being able to think in her presence, from not being stupid in her presence, and from being able to talk with her about the things you are actually talking about. When you find that the things you are actually talking about are not the things you are talking about, that's when you know you're sick. . . ."

Saroyan never outgrew his childhood in Fresno, that Steinbeck country of "terrible boredom and stupidity and meanness" in the 1920s. But the pain is transformed into laughter:

"Going mad was a specialty of the family. . . . In Bitlis, my father, Manak, was considered wise and worthy because he had made the trip to madness before he was twelve, which was uncommon." The forms of madness naturally changed for the Armenians who immigrated to America. "The whole family hadn't one member buried here. Everybody was on the surface of the country, flat on his feet, selling watermelons, or plowing a row of vines.

"We were in Fresno, but we were nowhere, too. How could we really be in a place until death had caught up with one of us, and we had buried him and knew he was there?

"This, in fact, was the form the madness took in my Uncle Vorotan . . . . Each evening when he reached his home, he asked both his wife and his mother, 'Has anybody died yet, to heal this fearful loneliness. . . .' When people were sick, he went to their bedside. 'Yes, I believe you will be the one to save us. Do not be afraid, do not hold back, the best Bashmanians are already in that great homeland in the sky, and the rest of us will soon follow.' " When old Varujan the gunsmith died in his sleep, "Vorotan was overwhelmed by the good news, donated ten dollars toward the cost of the funeral, made a short talk at the grave side, and was instantly healed of his madness."

In "The Inscribed Copy of the Kreutzer Sonata," we see another Americanization of old country wisdom, transmogrified into wit and bitter good humor for the same audience that loves Stephen King:

" 'Slowly to the wedding, slowly to the grave,' " Gaspar said.

" 'The old sayings are wise sayings,' Apkar said, 'but there may be saying we have never heard and shall never hear that may be even wiser. 'Swiftly to the wedding, swiftly away from the killer.'

" 'Swiftly away from what killer?' Gaspar said.

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