A DARING YOUNG MAN: A Biography of William Saroyan

John Leggett, Author . Knopf $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-375-41301-8

Famous for his literary portrayal of failures and angry men, playwright William Saroyan (1908–1981) might have appreciated Leggett's depiction of his life as a "tragedy of rage and rejection." Leggett has experience with tragic author figures (he wrote an acclaimed biography of Ross Lockridge Jr. and of Thomas Heggan), and he describes in painstaking detail the hubris and callousness—not to mention the gambling debts—that destroyed Saroyan's once-charmed career. Though he became an international celebrity and consorted with literary and Hollywood luminaries from Hemingway to Greta Garbo, his impetuousness also caused him to lose his money and become estranged from most of his friends. Leggett offers keen insights into the motivations that drove Saroyan's outrageous behaviors, arguing, for example, that Saroyan rejected the Pulitzer in 1940 (for his play The Time of Your Life) because he saw all honors as "transactions in which he seemed to lose some precious independence and to catch an offensive whiff of servility." At times, such insights get lost amid the minutiae of Saroyan's career. As well, Leggett offers some implausibly detailed reports about Saroyan's internal state (for instance, Saroyan "managed to contain his joy... and thanked Arthur Freed in the most casual way," when the MGM exec praised a screenplay in a telephone conversation). Still, fans of publishing history will enjoy Leggett's play-by-play of Saroyan's career, and literary biography buffs will embrace the book as a cautionary tale. Photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 10/07/2002
Release date: 11/01/2002
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