About a Man Who Wanted to Be in Love

new 019Saroyan was a product of his times. Going back and looking through early stories, you can see how they reflect many of the social morays of the day, as well as elements of Saroyan’s own journey. Reading “About a Man Who Wanted to Be in Love” raises some difficult questions about both the era and Saroyan’s worldview.

The story begins, simply enough, with a man named Gordon Kirker. He has not been in love for an extended period, and thus he toys with the idea of killing himself. After disposing of that idea as being ‘not all it’s cracked up to be,’ he moves on to find a woman to fall in love with. The vast majority of the story is about Kirker meeting women, and ultimately finding reasons to reject them all.

And, at the end, there’s a twist – he was married with a devoted wife all along.

The issues with this story, as it appears to today’s readers, arise mostly from the modern view of misogyny and racism. At the time of the writing, it might have raised a few eyebrows, but certainly would not have been far outside of the norms of the day, especially among men of Saroyan’s age. The way Kirker treats the woman is troubling as he seems to be interested in finding a woman who is not intelligent, meets his standards for physical beauty, and are available to him. His use of the word ‘girl’ to describe all women would also not fly so well today.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is the portion of the piece dedicated to Kirker and a Chinese woman he encounters. While including a Chinese character in a story such as this would be rare for a non-Chinese writer at the time, though some California writers had started to open up to including non-White characters, Saroyan makes a couple of troubling statements.

“She might be almost anything but Japanese or Chinese.”

He also discusses her coloration, noting –

“And, to be sure, she as not at all yellow, nor was she tan, but her complexion was like that of a White girl who had been in the sun a lot.”

This sort of view of Asian women, and particularly the attraction to a Chinese woman so long as she appeared to be White, is a problematic view and one that actually plays off of a long-standing concept of ‘Whiteness’ being preferable to any other skin coloration. While the Asian communities of San Francisco received better treatment than in many parts of the country in the 1920s, there was still a bias against them within residents. In many ways, this persisted for decades. 

The entire idea of the search is itself problematic. He seems to treat the women he interacts with well, at least at first, but also appears to consider them as flat objects without emotions or a backstory of their own. At the same time, he quickly develops paranoia surrounding some, or simply leaves them without contact, what today we’d call ‘ghosting’ them. The general feeling of the story, especially after the reveal of his marital status, is that Kirker isn’t actually looking for a partnership, but seemingly for someone to treat him as the center of their world.

“He wanted a girl to worship him, and sophisticated ladies worshipped not even God let alone mere men.”

There is a possibility of this work being specifically a call-out to the reader. The idea of a young man wanting to find love is one of the classic stories, and we’re presented with a somewhat prosaic form of it. We might even be rooting for Kirker, but then we are told that this is a married man, and the way it’s presented seems to indicate that Kirker took on this project while not maintaining his relationship with his wife and family. This is somewhat unclear, but it would have been difficult for him to do so much dating while still living with his wife and kids. Perhaps we are meant to turn on him, see his behavior as unacceptable. This might be a generous reading when you take the general treatment of the women on his search into account, but it could be. Saroyan was never shy about usign unlikable characters and bringing darker aspects of human behavior to light. Here, a reader could debate his intent, and perhaps he was trying to point out how often the audience for these kinds of stories buys into the search for love without truly understanding what the full picture might be, and that certainly in the real world, there are almost always complications. 

These themes, the search for love and the difficulties between men and women, pop up throughout Saroyan’s oeuvre. The search for love is an element of many stories, including The Human Comedy, and the difficulties of finding and maintaining love and relationships is a major element of later works like Boys & Girls Together and many of his later short stories.  Suicide also appears as a theme in several of his stories, notably "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." 

In Saroyan’s personal life, he had difficulties with women dating to his youth. He was married twice, to the same woman, and like Gordon Kirker, he had two children – a boy and a girl. The marriage was not a happy one, and there’s little evidence of him having lasting romantic relationships that were. Of course, all of that would take place in the decades after he published the story.

Covers010Stylistically, this story seems to fit in with Saroyan’s future writing better than "How to Write." Both share some themes, notably  the idea of their story being a story, but in "About A Man Who Wanted to Be in Love" the writing is more conversational, and there are many more of Saroyan’s famed digressions. The voice here is clear, and you can see the elements that would become lauded with the release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories in 1934. One element that doesn't seem to exist in these early stories is the optimism tinged with melancholy that came to be called 'Saroyanesque' writing. These are more cynical works, but perhaps 

The story first appeared in Boulevardier, a magazine that published several significant writers early in their careers but was largely forgotten, save for the cocktail that bears its name. Saroyan himself seems to have forgotten about the fact that he published there. He would also say that Overland Magazine was his first publication, though this may have been Saroyan wanting to highlight his association with that famed publication instead of the lesser-known Boulevardier. He was certainly aware of the stories, as in 1977 he wrote the Detroit Public Library requesting photocopies of the four stories that appeared in the magazine. On the upper portion of the copy of "About A Man Who Wanted to Be in Love" appears, in Saroyan's clearly recognizable scrawl, "Fresno Friday December 16 1977 1PM. First of four 'stories' published in Boulevardier Detroit."  

The story might be a bit jarring for today’s readers, but it does show the earliest portion of Saroyan rise to literary excellence.

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About A Man Who Wanted to Be in Love

First appeared in Boulevardier, April 1928


Boulevardier010A Man, who we will call Gordon Kirker for lack of a better name, upon discovering that he had not been in love since November 23rd, 1922, decided that for this reason his life had become quite too worthless and uneventful to bother with. So what did he try to do but take his life. He did not get very far with the idea, however, as he did not find committing suicide exactly what it was cracked up to be. He did not at all like the idea of blowing his brains about with a bullet as that would be terribly sloppy and he wanted to appear as solemn as possible in his coffin. He could not think of swinging himself by the neck until he was dead for only a heinous murderer was deserving of such punishment and it would not be at all fair for him to be so cruel to himself because he had only been guilty of the crime of not having been in love for a number of years. To be sure, Kirker found this business of committing suicide a bit too violent to satisfy him. That is why he gave up the idea altogether and decided that it might be a lot more fun to fall in love again. (And don’t you think he made a fine decision?)

Ordinarily when a man feels like falling in love he immediately looks about for a charming lady or at least the most charming lady that is available at the time, but it was quite different with Kirker. He went to his dreams and to literature for the lady he would love and he was not long in finding her. One night in a dream he came across this most wonderful lady and she was so delicately soft and beautiful and charming that he had to talk in his sleep. He said “Ah ha,” or it might have been “Oh ho,” but it was one of those two I am quite sure. Yes, when Kirker had finally found the lady he thought would be exactly what he wanted he said, “Ah ha, this is the lady I want. Now I wonder how I shall find her?” That was a fine question for Kirker to think up, but it was a more or less difficult question to start out with. It might have been wiser for him to have said, “Now that I have at last found the lady I want, I will make haste to find her,” or something of that sort, but it must be remembered that Kirker was no ordinary person thinking ordinary thoughts for did he not think he would like to take his life? Of course Kirker was no ordinary person. He was an altogether different kind of man. He had good manners and a very good bank account. That, of course, being the principal difference between Kirker and most other gentlemen, and that is no small difference, by any means.

He realized that his only duty in life now was to find this woman whom he would love as soon as possible, for his life had been empty long enough and he cared for emptiness no longer. After a very long debate with himself as to what method of procedure would be the most satisfactory he finally decided that no method of procedure at all would be the wisest way out of the thing, so that is the method he followed. He decided, however, that he would go into the various shops and stores on Market Street (for Kirker is a San Francisco man) to begin with, and if he could not find the desired lady in any of these places he would even knock about in the laundries and packing houses for it was not a rare thing for a Cinderella to be in these sort of places.

One day we find Kirker in one of Woolworth’s stores, of all places, on Market Street looking at birthday cards and ten cent toothbrushes. He had not come into this place with the intention of finding his love but he had hurried in because it had commenced raining and he had sought shelter. He did, however, make an acquaintance here which later delighted him. As I have said he was looking at birthday cards and he happened to lift one so that he might read the fine print on it and no sooner had he done this than two young girls, who had been carefully taught on how to deal with the professional shoplifter, came rushing at him without so much as a smile on either of their faces. One of the girls seemed to be Spanish for she was of tan complexion and she had dark eyes, but she is not the girl we are going to want to meet, for it was the other girl who struck Kirker as being rather charming. She was not Spanish but she must have been Austrian or perhaps Jewish, but she was not in any event, English, but Kirker was not the sort to bother about such trivialities as nationality and it would not have made a bit of difference to him if she had been even an Armenian, for that is exactly what she proved to be. She was pretty and she had black hair, very black hair, of the kind that made one laugh at blondes, and her eyes were very large and warm and her lips danced when she spoke and when she smiled, which was often enough, one saw teeth of ivory and gums of fire.

Kirker was delighted with her and when she asked if she could be of any assistance to him he said, “Why, yes, of course. I am going to want six or seven dozen of these birthday cards as a friend of mine is going to have a birthday soon.” She had not questioned him regarding the quantity of cards he desired but she had given him seven dozen and when she took his money for them, she smiled, but it was not the smile of a common fifteen-cent-store girl. Kirker thought it was the smile of an angel.

“I should like to speak with you alone sometime,” Kirker said, “if you might. Shall we lunch together?”

“Why, of course, I’d be delighted.” She replied, and so they lunched together and they spoke for a whole hour and then it was time for her to go back to her counter, so Kirker left the place. He could not be hanging around a fifteen-cent-store for too long a period of time. Suppose someone he knew should see him? It would be annoying to him as well as his acquaintance. That is why he hurried out to Market Street.

She was a charming young lady Kirker thought; and he had found her conversation beautiful as well as witty. He felt that he might have fallen madly in love with her had she not been so thoroughly intelligent and sophisticated. She possessed all the qualifications of his dream girl except that she knew a trifle too much. In fact, Kirker was a bit afraid that she actually knew much more than he about most things and it was difficult for him to understand how a slip of a girl working at so humble a position could possess so much understanding.

Somehow or other Kirker could not think of making love to her. She would have laughed at him and his foolish words and he would have felt miserable. No, she would not do at all. She would be a fine friend, but she could never be his sweetheart. Kirker called for her now and then and they often went to places together but not once did he thing of making love to her. He would not, however, think of giving up his search for the beautiful, but necessarily dumb lady of his dreams whom he would love.

One day, he strolled into The Emporium, the store in San Francisco that sells everything but illicit liquor, to see what he might see and what should he see but a lovely girl bending over a counter so that the back of her skirt was pulled high, revealing the best portion of her legs, which were so sweetly curved and shaped that Kirker almost fell in love with the legs alone, and it was only his presence of mind that made him also seek the girl’s face which he found not at all unbecoming. There was no question but that her legs were far more beautiful than her face but Kirker was not too particular and he did not hold that against the young lady. He spoke to her for quite a while and before he left he made a date with her for that very night.

She was a blonde and her name was Pansey and she was not the least bit sophisticated, but was, on the other hand, considerably eager to be loved. Kirker was as willing as she in this respect and the two had as good a time as might be expected. After dinner he had taken her to a show, a moving picture because she had asked for it, and after the show to an ice cream parlor and then he had taken her to her home, but before she had gone in it had been necessary for him to kiss her no less than forty times and with no small amount of ardor and passion. Kirker would have liked to have gone into her rooms with her but she had said it was quite impossible for reasons of her own. At last Kirker through he was again in love and it made him feel happy for the moment.

When he had gone to bed that night he had dreamt of his dream girl again but she was not what she used to be. She was neither Pansey nor the Armenian girl who was sophisticated, but she was a combination of the two and the most noticeable thing about her, this night, was her delightfully delicate legs. But that would not do at all and Kirker awoke almost disgusted. He did not feel that he didn’t love this girl Pansey but he wondered why she would not let him into her rooms. It occurred to him that she might have had a good husband asleep somewhere inside while he had been kissing her out in front of their very door. Then Kirker felt lucky that he had not been show through the head and killed. (This is still the same fellow who wanted to commit suicide at the beginning of this tale.” It happened almost every day. Husbands shot down all kinds of innocent young men for being in love with their wives. Kirker now felt almost positive that the reason Pansey had not wanted him to go into her rooms was because she had had a good husband hid away somewhere inside. That was just like a woman with beautiful legs, anyway! He couldn’t have much to do with her any longer. He would go right on with his search, however, as he was in no mood to quit.

The next time we come across Gordon Kirker again he is on Grant Avenue near Washington which is Chinatown in San Francisco, but he was not looking for the lady of his dreams for she could not possibly be Chinese. She might be almost anything but Japanese or Chinese. Of that he was quite sure. As funny as it may seem it was not long before Kirker completely changed his opinion of Chinese girls for it the shop of Sing Fat, across from St. Mary’s, he beheld a most delicious girl of about nineteen who had almond eyes that sparkled and pretty lips that made one forget such things as color. And, to be sure, she was not yellow, nor was she tan, but her complexion was like that of a white girl’s who has been in the sun a lot. Kirker smiled at her and she was kind enough to smile back so he bought several things of her that he did not need but he was not able to speak with her because she seemed not at all interested in flirting.         

That sweet Chinese girl had certainly done right to ignore Kirker for he would have found in a most annoying position had she spoken and flirted with him, for her words were like honey and her manner was unusual and unless one was a Methodist or a celibate one found that one became madly in list with her only to look at her for a few minutes. Kirker, for example, would have been madly  in love with her had he not hurriedly taken the things he had purchased and left the store. Yes, of course, he would have been madly in love with her and he might even have gone so far as to laugh at the traditions of the white man and loved her, but of that one cannot be positive for the Chinese girl had already laughed at those traditions by refusing the white man altogether.

If Kirker had not been lucky enough to find the lady he would love he had at least had a lot of fun looking for her and his life did not any longer seem empty to him and he seemed to be almost as happy as those fortunate men who have steady jobs and a certain amount of bills to pay each month. Kirker remained determined, however, and he insisted that it would be possible for him to find a lady he could love so he continued his search.

That is why we find him next in the very first row at the Warfield Theatre smiling now at this chorus girl and now at that. A few of the girls smiled back and that made Kirker very happy and when they finished dancing he applauded thunderously so that they might not think he was not for them. After the show Kirker went back-stage and had no difficulty finding the girls as they were expecting him and were only too pleased to meet him. He took two of them, Margo and Irene, to lunch and he let them know that he money to spend so the girls ate as much as they could stand and then Kirker took them out walking. Window shopping, they called it, but it didn’t take Kirker long to see that they were not window shopping at all but were actually buying things. He bought Margo some sort of a necklace which she said she had always wanted ever since she was a kid, and for this very same reason he bought Irene a bracelet and then it was time for the girls to get back to their dressing rooms so Kirker took them back in a taxi. While they were in the taxi the girls called him nice things suck as “Daddy” and “Sweet Boy” and they were not afraid of being kissed so that is what Kirker did until they reached the theatre. Both the girls were very proud of Kirker and made him promise that he would be in to see them again very soon, and it was with great joy and vanity that they showed their prizes to the other girls. Kirker, on the other hand, had had quite a jolly time Margo and Irene and really liked both the girls, for they were young and fair, but he knew that they would not do for the lady of his dreams, so he took them to dinner once again and they had a fine time and then the two girls had left the city for Sacramento.

It finally dawned upon Kirker that he had failed to find the lady of his dreams, the one what he would really love, and he was discouraged, but he never thought of committing suicide for he was having too good a time to think about that sort of thing. (And besides he knew suicide was not at all what it was cracked up to be.)

This time it was difficult for Kirker himself to understand just what he wanted in a woman and he felt that he could not explain even to himself exactly what he wanted, but he remained positive that the minute he should see the lady he desired he would know it. It was hardly a question of nationality or color or education or position. What he wanted above all other things was charm and combined with softness and childish sincerity as well as a sweet manner and an unsophisticated view of life. Kirker feared sophistication in women. He knew that that sweet Armenian would have been ideal had she not been so capably sophisticated. He wanted a girl to worship him, and sophisticated ladies worshipped not even God let alone mere men.

Boulevardier011For six long months Kirker continued his search still insisting that he would find the lady who would make him fall madly in love with her. He met this girl, and that, nd talked with then and danced with them and kissed many of them and bought things for most of them, but not once did he fall in love. He was having a pleasant time, he supposed, but what he wanted was love and he had searched but he had not found and he felt sad. He had tried the shop girl, the chorus girl, the stenographer, and a lot of others but not one of them had been the lady of his dreams. He liked them all, but he loved not one of them.

At last, he gave up. The more he went about with these various girls the more fault he found with them and the more beautiful the girl became the girl of his dreams. So at last he decided that he would neither commit suicide nor would he try to fall in love again for both these things were not what they were cracked up to be.

After all this fooling around Kirker sadly went back to his wife, for Kirker had a wife who loved him like she loved no other man, and he had, as well, a daughter named Helen and a son named William.

(Now, isn’t that just like a man?)

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