Here is My Heart: The Frailty and Hope of William Saroyan

August 3, 2012 | 6 books mentioned 2 5 min read

Love, Here is My Hat: I came across a copy of William Saroyan’s book in a Vermont used book store not long ago and clasped it, rather melodramatically, to my heart. The book itself has hearts on the cover — two red ones floating above images of a man and a woman, and of a cupid and a bed sketched on a pink-ish background. I bought it, forgetting for the moment that I already own a copy of the exact same edition. Even if I had several copies, though, I would have needed to make the purchase that day because my heart needed tending.

I had driven to Vermont to visit a child in college, but most of all to clear my head. A storm threatened to stop me part way, and as I crept along the snow-covered roads, I fought the urge to see the journey as a parallel for that stage in my marriage. And yet, there it was: unseen hazards, poor traction, and a route at times so difficult that it threatened to turn both me and my husband back. I thought of what I could ask of my life, and how happy I could expect to be. It wasn’t a mawkish question, but a practical one: what did I want? I believed I needed answers, that I owed it to myself to ask. But the next day, there was Saroyan’s familiar book and it wasn’t asking a question at all. It was offering.

I have loved Saroyan’s short stories since I first encountered them among the yellowed Pocket and Avon Books of my father’s wartime collection. These were all-American paperbacks, their jacket copy exhorting the reader to support the GIs and their contents full of “See?” and “fella.” That they should end up in a closet in my grandmother’s house in Greece was a large part of their appeal. Inherently nostalgic, describing a period 30 years removed from my teenage life, the books became for me doubly so as they evoked a distant America while the weeks of my Greek summers wound down and the pull of home in New England grew stronger. Each summer, I would tug 48 Saroyan Stories gently from the shelf and flip the brittle pages as if they were rare manuscripts. I would imagine the book in my father’s back pocket as he walked the streets of an Athens newly liberated from German occupation. And I would be carried off to a California of orchards, diners, and flophouses, an America of trains and dirt roads and bellhops looking to make ends meet. In Saroyan’s writing, I encountered a United States that was both exotic and familiar.

Many years ago, I asked my father if I could bring the Saroyan home with me, and I think he was touched that I found such value in this particular souvenir. Together with some Erle Stanley Gardner noirs and Leslie Charteris’s Saint books, these were the stories that had taught my father English. But it was Saroyan in particular who taught him the language of America, the adopted country that he deeply loved, and that he returned to with pride after his own Greek sojourns.

covercovercover48 Saroyan Stories now sits in a glass-fronted cabinet, separated from the rest of the fiction arranged alphabetically in another room. Over the years I’ve added more Saroyan finds to the cabinet: Love, Here is My Hat; Peace, It’s Wonderful; The Human Comedy; and My Name Is Aram. These volumes sit alongside an early edition of Far From the Madding Crowd and some first editions of W.B. Yeats. The Hardy is leather, softened with the handling of almost two hundred years. The Yeats collections are beautiful hardcovers decorated in classic 1920s style. With their rubbed-round corners and torn spines, the Saroyans are like the interloping distant relatives at the wedding who laugh too loud and don’t know how to dress.

When I saw Love, Here is My Hat in Vermont that day, I needed to buy it again because Saroyan appeals to my heart and not my literary head. I bought it because Saroyan signals the pull of something or someplace absent; because the stories collected there are about people trying to make do, to make simple lives of love and happiness; and most of all because the book and that title I’ve never quite understood represent an offer. Here is my hat. Perhaps it’s a gesture of surrender, or of begging. I’m not really sure, and I’ve resisted researching the phrase to find out what it might have meant in 1938. It doesn’t matter. The book offers a gift of some kind. Here, the writer says. Take this.

It’s important to me that it’s Saroyan himself who seems to be making the gesture. In the title story, which also appears in my father’s old paperback, no one utters the phrase. Nor does anyone in any other story in the book. “Love, Here is My Hat” tells the story of a man and a woman who are so plagued by love for each other that they cannot eat when they’re together. “I can’t live without you,” she says.

Yes, you can, I said. What you can’t live without is roast beef.
I don’t care if I never eat again, she said.
Look, I said. You’ve got to get some food and sleep, and so do I.
I won’t let you go, she said.
All right, I said. Then we’ll die of starvation together. It’s all right with me if it’s all right with you.

He goes away to Reno so they can both choke something down. But she finds out where he is and follows him there. She calls him on the phone.

Are you all right?
I want to cry, she said.
I’ll come and get you, I said.
Did you eat? she said.
Yes, I said. Did you?
No, she said. I couldn’t.

Before my husband and I were married, the rhythms of graduate school kept us apart for two months at a time. As the date of my departure for England approached each cycle, we found it harder and harder to eat. I told him about the story, and though it wasn’t a perfect match, it became, even a little bit for him, a kind of shorthand for how we felt. “Did you eat?” I would sometimes ask over the phone later, and I would think of the stark back-and-forth of Saroyan’s prose, and the barebones matters of love and separation that made his stories and that made up our world.

I bought the second copy of Love, Here is My Hat not really thinking about the title. It was only as I gave the book to my husband, 30 years after our cycles of separation and return, that I realized how I’d been misreading it. Here is my heart. I held the book out with both hands as if it were truly precious, and it hit me. To me, Saroyan’s book and all his stories are imbued with frailty and hope, with the tentative gestures of people who don’t have or expect much, but still offer what they consider basic: their hearts. Love, Here is My Hat. Or my heart. Either way, the phrase suggests an offer with no certainty of acceptance. Like a hat held out, it’s an offer that risks disappointment but still hopes for something in return. We make the gesture all the same — even when we think we should know better.

My husband took the book from me that day and held it just as gently as I had. He listened to what I had to say — about my father and about the lovers who cannot eat and about my heart — and understood. Now there are two copies of Saroyan’s book in the house. Mine sits on my desk beside my laptop, and his copy rests on his nightstand. Not reading matter, it’s more of a reminder, perhaps to both of us, of how important it is to offer without knowing what the outcome will be.

In that vulnerability lies the beauty of Saroyan’s work. It is simple. It is basic. It doesn’t lay claim to any grander place in literature, nor does it deserve one. It is, sometimes, all we need. A little book, an offer, a question. Did you eat?

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's debut novel The Clover House was published by Ballantine Books in 2013 and was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has appeared in publications including Narrative Magazine, Salamander, the New England Review, The Millions, The New York Times online, and the Huffington Post, and has earned her a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. She is the founding editor of The Drum, an online literary magazine publishing short fiction and essays exclusively in audio form.