A haunted race in 1950s Fresno

Aram Saroyan is the author of several books, including "Rancho Mirage: An American Tragedy of Manners, Madness and Murder," "Artists in Trouble: New Stories" and "Last Rites," a memoir of his father, playwright William Saroyan.

"Bloodvine," Aris Janigian's darkly robust first novel, gives us a Fresno light years away from the enchanted childhood isle of William Saroyan's "My Name Is Aram" and "The Human Comedy." This is a Fresno of the 1950s, inherited by the sons and daughters of Saroyan's Armenian immigrants, and it's a brooding, insular place. While the older Armenians are still haunted by old-world notions of fate and evil spells, the new generation must push forward with the business of finding its footing in a brave and not always easily understandable new world.

On an early page, Janigian gives a dead-on portrait of an Armenian clergyman, in his own person a sort of de facto buffer zone between the two worlds, the one offering the comforts (and caprices) of deep-rooted traditions and the other the promise of a place beyond the reach of the genocide still fresh in their lives:

"[A]fter what the Turks had done, some Armenians claimed that every member of the race was afflicted with some measure of [madness]. Lunatics, along with half-wits, the sexually bewildered

A troubled old-world mother, Angel, and her embattled married daughter Zabel consult with an Armenian bishop passing through Fresno:

" 'Now, Mrs. Voskijian,' [the bishop said], 'we have made a special trip to your home. We understand you have some spiritual concerns.'

" 'As I mentioned to the Father, we have reason to believe that this land is cursed.'

" 'Hmmm.' Through the window, the bishop examined the vineyards in question.

" 'We are petitioning you to exorcise it. That is, cast out the demons that have spoiled year after year the fruits of our labors.'

"The bishop clicked his tongue, then raised a finger and moved it after the motion of a metronome. 'This is not possible,' he said."

"Bloodvine," a nonfiction novel, tells the story of Andy Demertian and his half-brother, Abe Voskijian -- based on the writer's father and his uncle -- and of a land deal that went bad between the two and, according to the author's prologue, reverberates negatively in the lives of their extended family to this day. Andy, the novel's protagonist, is a young man trying to give his best while struggling in the chasm between the two worlds that seem to be his inheritance, and he grows on the reader steadily, eventually to claim wholehearted sympathy and affection.

The brothers drive to look at a piece of land 200 miles south:

" 'Well, whatcha think?'

"Andy saw the land as a sort of natural underdog, full of potential and starved of attention. He reached for a shovel ... and sliced into the earth and turned it over, crouched down to look at it, smell it. He took some in his hand and shook it like dice.

" 'A natural for row crops.' "

He cultivates a tomato crop by himself on this parcel, commuting back and forth each week to work with Abe on their Fresno land. Abe is married to Zabel, who is obsessed by money worries and half-mad under her mother's tutelage. She drives a wedge between the brothers; and Andy, newly married with a baby coming, ends up with only a truck to his name. Fortuitously, he discovers a source of cash in all-night runs as a shipper of other farmers' produce. Long past midnight, the brakes of the truck give out on a high mountain pass, and Janigian delivers up a masterful set piece, combining high tension and high lyricism. Just before calamity strikes:

"[He] began to see ... snow ... as he climbed up higher, clumps of it on the side of the mountain like napping lambs.... The truck churned on, and a little past the summit there was a clearing in the sky and clouds drifted across the swollen moon, and the light was so velvet and heady that Andy rolled the window down for a few minutes to feel the luminescence, to take a gulp of it."

What the nonfiction novel -- a work based on fact but utilizing the techniques of fiction -- in effect proposes, for both writer and reader alike, is that by means of novelistic empathy we will come to a deeper understanding of a given story than we would with more judgmental journalistic scorekeeping. The burden on the writer of this sometimes misunderstood genre, then, is to allow each protagonist a share of novelistic empathy. If a story has a villain per se, the novelist is not allowed to tip his hand. "Remarks are not literature," Gertrude Stein famously tutored Hemingway. For characters come fully to life only in an atmosphere of authorial sympathy, and to stint in someone's direction may unbalance the narrative.

In an essay on Shakespeare, William Hazlitt calls him our greatest moral exemplar because of his capacity to empathize with virtually anyone: Lady Macbeth and Hamlet, Ophelia and Julius Caesar, Falstaff as well as Prince Hal. The "morality" Hazlitt proposes here is a different one than we learned in grammar school, with its emphasis on right and wrong. It might also be a paradigm for the novelistic approach to any given story. "In Cold Blood" takes us along as the killers drive to the house in Kansas where they'll commit mayhem, and then to the bedroom of the daughter of the house as she gets ready for a high school dance. "The Executioner's Song" lets us see inside the convict Gary Gilmore's mind one moment and his teenage niece's the next.

"Bloodvine" is full of finely rendered scenes between the two brothers and between the brothers and various bankers and brokers of Fresno. At the same time, when the prose turns away from its human traffic to observe the sky or the earth, the writer lets us see nature with a lucid force that more than once bears comparison with Hemingway or Boris Pasternak. The women, on the other hand, principally the villainous Angel and Zabel, are rendered with less charity and rapport, and this sometimes gives the story a stilted feeling. But this is a relatively minor item in a large achievement. Here is a rugged, gritty Fresno of working farmers in which the weather plays a vital, sometimes make-or-break role. The winning Andy Demertian -- by turns rueful, funny and steadfast -- carries the day. Put "Bloodvine" on the shelf beside Mark Arax's "In My Father's Name" and Peter Balakian's "Black Dog of Fate," books that tell us more about what it's like to be Armenian and American. Aris Janigian is a strong, welcome new voice.

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