The promising and, in the end, horrifying career of William Saroyan is a case study in the limits of raw talent. Talent Saroyan undoubtedly possessed, and in abundance. But he refused to refine it or develop it, refused to educate or to discipline himself, scorned the role of apprentice, scorned any role, in fact, but that of genius. As a result his early and meteoric success was succeeded by a long, humiliating, inevitable decline. As John Leggett points out in his grimly fascinating new biography, by the time Saroyan was in his mid-thirties he was already a burnt-out case.

He could look back on three of his impressive assaults on the entertainment world: on publishing, on Broadway theatre, and on Hollywood. For each there had been a spectacular debut, shimmering with the promise of a major discovery, followed by an overreaching, then a fizzling disappointment, a falling out with close...


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