“In the summer of 1963 I bought a 1941 Lincoln limousine in New York, so that I might be chauffeur in California to the few remaining dignitaries in my family,” William Saroyan explains at the start of Short Drive, Sweet Chariot. This slim book is his account of his trip to Fresno, accompanied by his cousin John, to take his uncle Mihran and other relatives out for rides in style. Or rather, his account of part of that trip. The part from Ontario to the edge of South Dakota, where Saroyan cuts to the chase and a short postscript saying, in effect, “So anyway we got to Fresno and took Mihran out for a drive.”
This is Saroyan at the point in his career where he’d just about given up any pretence about sticking to any particular literary form, when most of his work consisted of perambulating, wise-cracking monologues. For a few fans who truly love his idiosyncratic meanderings for the loose, baggy messes they are, these books are Saroyan in his purest, most brilliant form. For most of the reading public that had made early books such as The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze best-sellers, a book like Short Drive, Sweet Chariot wasn’t worth noticing.
Personally, I kinda prefer these latter messy books. I still have a copy of his last book, Obituaries, from 1979, which was nominated for an American Book Award and helped–a bit–to restore Saroyan’s critical reputation. Obituaries has the structure of an entry for each day of the day, with each entry discussing someone whose obituary appeared in a paper that day. However, more than a few entries start out along the lines of, “So-and-so died today. I never met him. There was another guy I knew, though, and he ….”
But you don’t read one of these books because Saroyan follows the rules, you read it because he’s almost always at least interesting and occasionally brilliant, funny, poetic, or tender. And when he’s not … well, the momentum along will carry you and him along to the next good bit. Like this little meditation:
In getting from Windsor to Detroit there is a choice between a free tunnel and a toll bridge, which turned out to be a short ride for a dollar, which I mentioned to the toll-collector who said, “One of those things,” impelling me to remark to my cousin, “Almost everything said by people one sees for only an instant is something like poetry. Precise, incisive, and just right, and the reason seems to be that there isn’t time to talk prose. This suggests several things, the most important of which is probably that a writer ought not to permit himself to feel he has all the time in the world in which to write his story or play or novel. He ought to set himself a time-limit, and the shorter the better. And he ought to do a lot of other things while he is working within this time-limit, so that he will always be under pressure, in a hurry, and therefore have neither the inclination nor the time to be fussy, which is the worst thing that happens to a book while it’s being written.
Or this one about the precedent Kennedy set as the first Catholic elected President:
President Hamazasp Azhderian, that’s the man I’m waiting to see in office. I’d like the order to be about like this, for the purposes of equity. After the Catholic, a Jew. Then, a twice-married, twice-divorced beautiful woman, known to be fond of bed and gazoomp. Then, a Negro, preferably very black. Then, a full-blooded Blackfoot. And finally Hamazasp Azhderian.
C’mon now–wouldn’t it be cool to have “a twice-married, twice-divorced beautiful woman, known to be fond of bed and gazoomp” after President Obama?
“Americans,” Saroyan writes, “have found the healing of God in a variety of things, the most pleasant of which is probably automobile drives.” Short Drive, Sweet Chariot is certainly one writer’s celebration of the pleasures of driving a fine vintage automobile along the mostly pre-freeway roads of America, but in Saroyan’s case, there doesn’t appear to be anything he needed to be healed of. More, it was a golden opportunity to expound for hours on end to a capture audience–namely, his cousin John. John comes off as an intelligent and enormously patient man who only occasionally finds it necessary to burst one of his cousin Bill’s bubbles.
And fortunately, cousin Bill was a pretty interesting guy to listen to. No, Short Drive, Sweet Chariot is no masterpiece and not much more than a bit of intelligent, poetic, meandering fluff. But it’s also an entire work, in the sense that Saroyan used that word: “incomplete, impossible to complete, flawed, vulnerable, sickly, fragmented, but now, also, right, acceptable, meaningful, useful, and a part of one larger entirety after another, into infinity. Kind of a modern age equivalent of the Great Chain of Being.