William Saroyan’s drinking habits, and things he said about alcohol and drinking

18 Jun 2021

- “Before my first book was published I was not a drinker, but soon after it came out I discovered the wisdom of drinking, and I think this is something worth looking into for a moment. 1935 I drank moderately and traveled to Europe for the first time, but the following nine years, until I was drafted into the Army, I drank as much as I liked, and I frequently drank steadily for nine or ten hours at a time. I was seldom drunk, however. I enjoyed the fun of drinking and talking loudly with friends — writers, painters, sculptors, newspapermen, and the girls and women we knew in San Francisco. Drinking with good companions can be a good thing for a writer, but let a writer heed this humble and perhaps unnecessary warning: stop drinking when drinking tends to be an end in itself, for that is a useless end. I believe I have learned a lot while I have been drinking with friends, just as most of us may say we have learned a lot in sleep. There is, however, a recognizable limit to what may be learned by means of drinking.”

Saroyan wrote a lot about drinking, many of his characters love drinking and some of his plays take place in bars. He also wrote about his own drinking in The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills. He mentions wine, brandy, beer, whiskey, liquor, vodka, Cuba libra, and other drinks in his works. 

- "I did not begin to drink in earnest until I was well over twenty-five. Until that time I had on a number of occasions had a jug of wine. I never liked getting things blurred. I liked getting them clear, and then clearer and clearer. Wine drinking got them blurred, but whiskey-drinking, I discovered, got them clear, and then clearer and clearer. This is not inaccurate. Whiskey made inner and outer realities clearer to me—provided, of course, I didn't drink too much." 

Here are some drinking quotes and examples of drunkards from Saroyan’s plays and short stories: 

The Time of Your Life -  The drinking in the play contributes greatly to its atmosphere, and indeed Saroyan strives to make the audience itself inebriated. Edmund Wilson commented that "the peculiar spell exerted by his play, The Time of Your Life, consisted in its sustaining the illusion of friendliness and muzzy elation and gentle sentimentality which a certain amount of beer or rye will bring on in a favorite bar. Saroyan takes you to the bar, and he creates for you there a world that is the way the world would be if it conformed to the feelings instilled by drinks. In a word, he achieves the feat of making and keeping us boozy without the use of alcohol and purely by the stimulus of art." See Wilson, The Boys in the Back Room, p. 26.

The Beautiful People - When not done as escapism, drinking is an embrace with the primal unity of creation, an uninhibited refusal of limitations. In this play, the poet celebrated the "cup of kindness" which Jonah shares with his friend Dan Hillboy in act 2 (p. 80). 

Boys and Girls Together - It is the only book of Saroyan's in which the characters are predominantly callow, self-indulgent, and preoccupied with sex and drinking.1963

1. “Never touched it,” the widow said. “Just wines. He cooked with wines. We often had it at breakfast. I’ve been drinking different kinds of wines for twenty-two and a half months. It isn’t the Scotch that does it, Oscar darling. It’s—”

2. “She came from peasants—they had been wine-makers in the old country. Her feet were fine to see, although dark and a little rough, for she had never paid much attention to herself. She had thick black hair and the whitest teeth he had ever seen in anyone who wasn’t black. She was the third from the last in a family of eleven children, and her parents had always been poor but had always managed to get a great deal of food onto the table for everybody to eat, and wine.”

3. The woman fetched a can of beer from the refrigerator and he slapped her bottom when she moved past him so she’d know he was still thinking about how she had it. She poured beer into a glass and then she said, “It’s too late.”

4. “There was the actress who had been famous but wasn’t any more and was drinking all the time because she wasn’t but said she could have a lot of them, surely three, she had started acting when she was just a kid, she was thirty but thirty wasn’t so much. (Dubious.) She had something for them: but she couldn’t get to sleep unless she was drunk or took sleeping pills and she looked bad until five in the after¬ noon and seemed to be trembling a little all the time until then. That might not be so good for them. She had plenty, though: she was deeply funny and clean and had an innocence you had to love, for she had had affairs with half a dozen known playboys and surely half a dozen unknown ones. She was slim, too, and had a way of talking you couldn’t resist because although it wasn’t natural, although it had been cultivated and frequently disappeared, was very pleasing to the ear, her voice rising sweetly in the right places in a manner so artificial as to be refreshing”

5. “I’m so excited. That’s why I want to drink. I want to get drunk. You get drunk, too.”

6. “I’m drunk,” the villain said suddenly, “but I love it. And I’m going to get drunker. This is the kind of house I want to live in, that’s all. I know I never will, but this is the kind I want to.”

It is interesting that Saroyan uses the word evasion to describe the drinking of liquor,- it is the same word used in "Quarter, Half, Three-Quarter, and Whole Notes" in the passage concerning the difficulty of achieving personal wholeness. It is an "evasion" which many of his characters resort to among others, Joe of The Time of Your Life, Jonah Webster of The Beautiful People, and Grogan of The Human Comedy. Later in "The Living and the Dead," the effect of alcohol is described lyrically (William Saroyan, My Real Work is Being by Calonne, David Stephen)

- "Drink expands the eye, enlarges the inward vision, elevates the ego. The eye perceives less and less the objects of this world and more and more the objects and patterns and rhythms of the other: the large and limitless and magnificent universe of remembrance, the real and timeless earth of history, of man's legend in this place" 

Alcohol has in it the truth of divine madness, and we are meant to think of Mike's grandfather Melik when the drunkard is described as "the most absurd of the individualists, the ultimate egoist, who rises and falls in no domain other than that of his own senses, though drunkards have been, and will long be, most nearly the children of God, most truthfully worshippers of the universal" 

- "Get a little drunk. Don't be so serious,"

- “She recalls how Melik used to ride his black horse through the hills and forests of Armenia, drinking, and singing, and terrifying the wild Kourds of the desert with his presence. "If he was sober," she said, "he spoke quietly, his voice rich and deep and gentle, and if he was drunk, he roared like a lion and you'd think God in Heaven was crying lamentations and oaths upon the tribes of the earth." And, when he laughed, "it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with delight."

- “There has almost been something wrong, even when the going and being was most pleasantly heightened and true. And from the sheer pleasure of it, one thrust out to a further heightening of it by coffee, cigarettes, travel, people, beer, whiskey, gambling, fornication, laughter, talk, and so on and so forth.”