Armenian Rhapsody

By Kauffman, Bill | The American Conservative, January/February 2018 | Go to article overview

Armenian Rhapsody


Kauffman, Bill, The American Conservative


Browsing in the video store (to hell with Netflix!), sedulously avoiding superheroes, sex comedies, and Amy Schumer, I picked up the recent release Ithaca, hoping it might be a satire on that Upstate New York college town. 'Twas even better: a faithful remake, directed (ably) by Meg Ryan, of The Human Comedy, William Saroyan's tale of a telegraph messenger boy who delivers tidings of death to the people of his small California burg during the Second World War.

I had read the book and watched the 1943 Mickey Rooney version in high school, but it was not until I married a half-Armenian girl that I paid proper attention to Saroyan. For the initiate into the Armenian-American mysteries soon learns the names and faces carved into the cultures Rushmore, or Ararat. There's Cher (Sarkisian)-a half-breed, as her Sonny-less hit tune went; Tonio К (Steve Krikodan), a genre-busting songwriter (punk? Christian? wise-guy humanist?) whose album Ole is just superb; and there's SCTV's Andrea Martin and Ross "Alvin and the Chipmunks" Bagdasarian and the guy who played Mannix and we won't even mention Dr. Jack Kevorkian or the Kardashian klan.

But above all there is William Saroyan: "the most famous Armenian of all time," as his son Aram wrote in his astoundingly bitter memoir Last Rites. A winsome sentimentalist, his stories an odd mix of naivete and worldly wisdom, Saroyan was a Christian pacifist and a Fresno-bred anarchist- that is, an old-fashioned American, which is perhaps why he is so ludicrously out of joint with the body politic today.

The Second World War, whose death notices Homer Macauley of Ithaca delivers, "ruined his life," said Saroyan's ex-wife, Carol Marcus. He made a deal with Southern agrarian turned censorious superhawk Herbert Agar of the Office of War Information. Saroyan would churn out a patriotic novel in exchange for a month-long furlough with his wife and son.

Constitutionally incapable of writing spread-eagle propaganda, Saroyan turned in a novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, about a shy draftee who comes to believe that "our own Army was the enemy' Wesley concludes, "Human beings must not murder one another. They must wait for God to take them in His own good time."

Bad career move, Bill! Agar rejected the novel, canceled the leave, and threatened Saroyan with a court-martial. When the book was published after the war, its author was reproved for breaking martial lockstep. …

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