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Starting Out in the Sixtiesby Aram Saroyan
Talisman House, 209 pp., $21.95 (paper); includes photos and index
This book has it all. Take, for example, the pedigree of the author, who himself is poet, novelist, editor, biographer, memoirist, essayist, photographer, and father of three. Aram Saroyan is the son of Armenian-American writer William Saroyan, author of The Human Comedy, originally a screenplay for which the father won an Oscar in 1943, the year of Aram's birth. Aram's Jewish mother Carol (Marcus) was a New York debutante whose second husband was actor Walter Matthau. Apart from his family tree, Aram grew up during the 1950s and Sixties working with fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, pop artist Andy Warhol, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan (accompanying the latter in 1967 when he interviewed Jack Kerouac for The Paris Review profile two years before the Beat novelist's death), to mention but a few of the leading figures of those times known personally to the younger Saroyan.
Along with considering in this selection of highly readable essays his own private world as a family man, the son of celebrities, and a published author "down-sized" by the fact that he was "committed to work that didn't provide even the basics expected in other lines of work: regular payment, benefits, vacation et al.," Saroyan thinks deeply and compassionately about other writers, editors, and artists, as well as political figures. He characterizes the careers of Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown, Charles Olson, Andrei Codrescu, Timothy Leary, Henry Rago (editor in the 1960s of Poetry magazine of Chicago), Gerard Malanga, and Oliver Stone. But he also takes up the Columbine High School shootings, the Publishers' Clearing House scam, the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, a 1999 book by Robert W. McChesney titled Rich Media, Poor Democracy, and the TV series Kojak and Colombo. In short, Saroyan is a writer well aware of the public sector.
Principally, this book is filled with the wisdom of a man who has looked back on the Sixties and made sense of them in terms of both their art and politics. He asserts that the Sixties have been forgotten, ignored, misunderstood, written off as a psychedelic-crazed age that we have outgrown. As a result, his essays set out to reveal that his generation has bequeathed to us much that we now take for granted. Instead of the strictly political revolution the Sixties sought to bring about, the era changed the world more through a concern for "ecology, the equality of women, civil rights, the anti-war movement, new age health, quality of life (and of death), meditation." All of this and much more is to be found in the pages of this warm, candid, insightful account of the people, literature, and politics of a period that Saroyan has come as a writer and thinker to understand was critical to the way we are today. His previous book, Friends in the World: The Education of a Writer, was hailed as "the most important literary memoir of the generation of American writers who have come of age in the last quarter of the twentieth century." Starting Out in the Sixties is an even more important book.
In the afterword to his essays, Saroyan offers a number of personal revelations that indicate his ability to discover in his own life the larger meanings of a decade that may have been the most democratically disruptive of the entire 20th century. He observes that "the idea of a life, that life is ineluctably connected to one's work as an artist, might, in the end, be the deepest and most subversive claim made by my generation." Further on, he remarks that "this idea that we had that our lives deserved primacy may prove to be the one that has the most use to future generations." At the same time he has learned to appreciate the paradox that "butting up against and coming to terms with the marketplace mentality can sometimes catalyze one's best literary energies." Having considered throughout his book the relevancy of art to life, he concludes the afterword with this heartening rhetorical question: "Isn't a great part of the gift of good art, after all, that it comprises an avenue to fuller understanding and enjoyment of the things of this world; that it points us, renewed, back to our lives?"
Dave Oliphant's most recent book is Memories of Texas Towns & Cities.