Saroyan and the (Stolen) White Horse

Today, in the weird way of New England weather, it’s fall again.  Cool, crisp, the leaves tossing in a breeze.  Yesterday, a scorcher, has already slid off the memory horizon.  Today, I built a fire again in the wood stove.  Tomorrow — who knows?  Maybe that memory of yesterday will reincarnate in tomorrow’s heat.

I remember reading a lot of Saroyan as a teenager.  His books I came across were all old and had been read many times, and, who knows, maybe some of them were out of print even then.  As one of my odd rules of thumb, whenever I come across Saroyan in a used bookstore, I generally buy the book.  I love reading him, for one thing; I don’t often these days come across either used bookstores or Saroyan; and an extra copy of Saroyan is always good to have on hand, because someone might need it.  Surely one of the best short story opening lines is from “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse.”

One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everyone who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.

The story, and the entire story collection, unfolds from here.  “The Pomegranate Trees,” also in the collection whose image I’ve freely lifted below, remains one of my favorite stories. But sad, my own nine-year-old would protest.   Too sad.

But Saroyan’s also one of the funniest writers I’ve read, that profound sadness (he was Armenian, after all) tempered with a marvelous joy and comedy.  American life these days is often so stridently angry — justifiably so, perhaps, perhaps — and so serious, so often driven to compete and succeed, make something of yourself, and so on, etcetera. Imagine the unfettered joy you might have, if you were woken at the earliest dawn by your cousin and a beautiful white horse — stolen, no less, by your cousin whose family has been honest for “something like eleven centuries”?  Horse-crazy as you likely are, I hope you leap out that window and not let this opportunity gallop by.

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Taking Apart A Book, with apologies to Saroyan

I picked up a copy of William Saroyan’s The Secret Story for fifty cents.  No doubt out of print now, this copy must have been sold on a drugstore rack.  I paid double the original book cost:  one whole quarter.  Check out the garish cover below.  It’s so slutty I’m a little embarrassed to be seen reading it on the elementary school playground.

The novel, however, is classic Saroyan, and for anyone who loves Saroyan that means exquisite.  The story has a tender appreciation for its characters, particularly its children, who often figure prominently in Saroyan stories and are never trivialized or portrayed as naive.  The underlying adult relationships, however, are rife with sin — greed and lust and unfulfilled desire — often cataclysmically playing out.

When I learned to knit sweaters, every time I saw someone in a handknit sweater who was amenable to undressing a bit, I asked to have that sweater handed over.  Then I turned the garment inside out and ran my hands and eyes over the knitting and seaming, to figure out how the sweater was created.  Likewise, with writing, I can’t help but turn a novel inside out.  How is this piece of writing put together?  In this Saroyan novel, I immediately noticed the vocabulary is simple, just a handful of words really.  A well-placed image of weeds in an irrigation ditch comes and goes with the characters:  nothing flashy or show-offy, merely a ditch one-fifth full of water, and remarking whether or not to dredge weeds from the ditch.  The writing relies heavily on characters revealing themselves through their own dialogue, distinctive and natural to each character.

Yet, reading this novel is like journeying down into a very deep pond, clear and transparent at the surface, increasingly murky and filled with microscopic, teeming life as the journey progresses.

David Budbill’s advice to himself is:

                                    Never be deliberately obscure.
                                    Life is difficult enough.
                                    Don’t add to the confusion.

I’d add here that might mean:  rely on your material.  Rely on the craft of your material.

A word again on that cover.  How I wish novels were still a quarter a book.  Wouldn’t we all read more?  The Secret Story is a racy story, filled with illicit desire, a scandalous pregnancy, a husband’s rage.  But aren’t we drawn to those elements because wild desire is part of our human world?  Isn’t plot — story — one of the most engrossing elements of who we are?  Why not revel in story?  Why not seek our own redemption through story? Why not love reading?

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Savor This

This morning, when I reached up into my younger daughter’s bunk to wake her, this sweet child of mine sleeping the just and untroubled sleep of the almost-ten-year-old, I glanced through the little window in her bunk and saw a profundity of apple blossoms. Ivory white with centers the crimson of newborn babes’ mouths.

I’ve seen this old tree before our house bear hundreds of apples, and then, last year, exactly six — I mean six — apples.  We ate what the deer left.

Robert Frost, poet premier of stony soil, a farmer who knew this hard earth as well as anyone, wrote these spring lines:

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day; 
And give us not to think so far away 
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here 
All simply in the springing of the year.

Wholly lacking sentimentality, Frost knew what lay behind, and, knowing that, knew the intimation of what was to come.  In these warm days, the smear of Vermont dirt I find on my child’s foot is a glad sign we are in the springing of this year.  The bees humming on the blossoms just outside my kitchen window and the peepers thrumming in the little pond are the chorus of spring, of insistent, urgent beauty, of this brief season of youthful revel.  The wise poet savors that.  The breeze blowing up even now will whisk these tender petals away.

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The Bull’s Battlefield

Sunday, a day of lesser gardening and work, and hiking instead with my daughters.  We took a not-so-travelled trail on Mt. Mansfield, winding around a lovely lake before heading into a pleasant woods.

The trail was not overwhelmingly strenuous, ascending gradually through a narrow valley.  My younger daughter counted red trilliums, finally ceasing at 157.  As we kept climbing, she remarked there were at least half a million trilliums, which I concurred was more than likely, and then, after a moment, she thought there were two-thirds of 900 trilliums.  Older daughter turned around and demanded, Why do you have to keep talking about math?

Younger daughter:  Because I like math.

Although the year’s been relatively dry, we passed clear running streams and waterfalls, and near the lodge where we ate lunch, we walked by a series of muskrat ponds.

We saw almost no one.  Wildflowers were out in force; the wild apple trees along the trail’s beginning bloomed like there’s no tomorrow.

Hiking, I kept thinking of Hemingway’s bull.  How reluctant I am to confront a fierce, enormous animal, stomping in the dust, wild curls of steam snarling from its snout.  How much I would rather live in the ephemeral world of wildflowers.

And then, bending down to admire a spring beauty, I realized that bull is within me. Writer, I thought to myself:  you fool.  Where is the battlefield of this age-old unholy of holy wars?  Here I’ve been carrying it around with me all these years, in my rickety skeleton.

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Plant a Tree With Daughters

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that a man had to plant a tree, fight a bull, write a book, and have a son.  Taking one enormous giant step away from the feminists’ ranting about Hemingway and his often not poplar notions of manhood and women, I’d like to acknowledge that these four tenets of advice are pretty much as salt-of-the-earth as I could imagine.

As my older daughter and I planted a tree this afternoon, we talked about Hemingway and how that advice might differ for women.  Have a daughter, we immediately agreed.

Fight a lady bull? my younger daughter suggested.

No, I insisted.  Fight a bull.  I wrote a book — not a lady book by any means.  Fight the bull you encounter, horns or not.  Plant the tree you must, wherever your soil lies.

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Mapping

May, as opposed to November, brims with the joys of living in Vermont.  Oh, November’s okay, but May is exquisite — the apple blossom season — albeit a little fickle.  We’re not free of Jack Frost yet.

In school, my daughter was asked to envision a mental map of her world.  As maps — living with and without them — figure prominently in the novel I’m writing, this exercise set me thinking.  How would a mental map of the world for a Vermont ten-year-old differ from a child in Turkey?  Or say you are a Chilean miner?  Or a skydiver over Dubai?  How radically the topography (miles high or miles deep) of those worlds would differ.

The places we hold dear, a vernal pond or a child’s rope swing; the places we fear, the night’s blind country dark or the midnight territory of our own troubled heart; and the places we imagine and desire….. all these places are marked on our own unique maps in space, time, and memory.  November’s rainy days hold repetition, but these spring days are unfettered by similarity; the world’s busily growing.  These days, the map is not static.

Yet I like driving at night

in summer and in Vermont:

the brown road through the mist…

                                                                                 Hayden Carruth, The Cows at Night

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