I came late to William Saroyan. I was 21 years old and had left Fresno for San Francisco, convinced that my place in literature was guaranteed--if only I could find something to write about.
So I turned to Saroyan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who also came from Fresno. Racing through his sweet, simple stories, I was driven by a single question: How had Saroyan found so much to write about in Fresno, a town that to me seemed devoid of literary potential?
The answer evaded me. Saroyan’s Fresno of crazy Armenian immigrants seemed a world apart from my suburban hometown. But the search did produce one more Saroyan fan, and when he died in 1981 I volunteered to write his obit for the San Francisco Examiner.
Saroyan had a great exit line. “Everybody has got to die,” he wrote on his deathbed, “but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
In Fresno, at least, the answer would be messier than Saroyan could have imagined.
The single-story stucco houses sit side by side in a northwest Fresno neighborhood. For 17 years, Saroyan lived and wrote in one of the houses and stored his papers in another. The yards were planted with fruit trees and overrun with weeds, and he lovingly tended to both.
He lived a complicated life, full of divorce and debt, but in his last months, 72 years old and facing cancer, Saroyan worked hard to arrange an orderly departure. He rewrote his will three times, leaving instructions on how to dispose of his corpse, his future royalties, his rock collection, everything.
The houses were important. He wanted them preserved as residences for immigrant scholars and writers, places to inspire writing, thinking, art. Details were left to the William Saroyan Foundation, which was to oversee his $1.3-million estate, but everyone understood that Saroyan didn’t want the houses sold off.
Which is precisely what happened. Shortly after he died, Saroyan’s plan was embellished to include a museum, and neighbors objected. Too many cars. Too many strangers. As the museum was debated, the houses were allowed to go to seed. The foundation, claiming it had no other options, simply sold them. And that was the end of that.
A few weeks ago, a friend took me to the houses. A small garage door plaque and a pomegranate tree were the only visible tributes to the former occupant. Next door, Helen Baca sat on her front porch. She had seen Saroyan come and go. She said a “nice young couple” now live in Saroyan’s house, and sightseers are rare.
“Sometimes,” Baca said, “a whole busload of people from Armenia will stop out front. They get out with their little cameras, and take their pictures, and then they go. You can tell they are foreigners.”
The house episode stands as the most galling example of local indifference toward Saroyan’s legacy, but it’s not the only one. Controversy follows controversy. One year, Saroyan’s unpublished manuscripts are being kept from public view. Another year, the Convention Center theater is renamed in his honor--despite Saroyan’s expressed desire that no building bear his name. Now, some people are upset that the foundation won’t enshrine his ashes at the Armenian cemetery.
This isn’t so surprising. Fresno hardly appreciated Saroyan even when he was alive. English teachers loved him, and tried to stuff him into our brain s . And the Armenians canonized him. But for many Fresnans, he was just an Armenian writer, the name recognized but the books rarely read. Saroyan, in turn, could at times write mean about Fresno and its small-minded ways. He left town as soon as he could, and he didn’t go back for a long, long time.
Also, Fresno is still a boom town, and in boom towns it’s considered a bit precious to fret about cultural preservation and the like. Houses are not meant to be museums. You buy them, sell them, trade up, move on. History must surrender to the future. Saroyan might not have liked what has happened, but he would have understood. He called it the human comedy.
When I was in high school, Saroyan once came to speak to our class. I thought I had better things to do. I remember, though, peeking into the crowded classroom for a minute. I remember Saroyan’s enormous mustache and slicked-back silver hair, and the way he shouted his response to a timidly asked question, a question about where he got his ideas for stories.
What I cannot recall, and I’ve tried often, is his answer. And maybe that’s the lesson of Saroyan’s houses--and other artifacts sacrificed in California’s frantic pursuit of progress. Some things we get one crack at, and then the chance is lost forever.