"Say Goodbye to Sam" is of unusual interest in that it is a first novel but not a first book. It comes to us with a freight of reference carried over from the author's earlier nonfiction works. "Say Goodbye to Sam" therefore has the advantage of appearing, by association, more substantial than it really is.
Michael J. Arlen's reputation rests principally on two books, "Exiles" (1970) and "Passage to Ararat" (1975), which won a National Book Award. "Exiles" is a haunted, self-communing portrait of the author's parents, his enigmatic Greek American mother and, especially, his American-English father, himself a celebrated minor novelist in the 1920s who inspired his son with deep-seated feelings of ambivalence.
"Passage to Ararat," a marvelous book, is the result of Arlen's heroic effort to elevate the quest for self-understanding from the personal level of "Exiles" to the historical. To find meaning in his own life, he argues, he needs to determine the meaning of his father's life, the father he both loved and hated. "And so, in due course, I journeyed to Armenia," the country Arlen's father had rejected on his behalf.
The book ultimately asks: What is the meaning of the history of the Armenian people? It becomes as important for Arlen to resolve his feelings about the Turkish near-genocide of the Armenians as it is for a Jew to comprehend the Holocaust. "And then I felt my father's hand in mine." The moment of historical understanding reconciles the writer with his dead father -- and at the same instant sets him free.
"Say Goodbye to Sam" is also the setting free of a son from his father. But the transposition to fiction entails a diminishment of richness in the writing, almost a trivialization of Arlen's own fascinating story.
Tom Avery is a successful, middle-aged New York journalist and award-winning author. At the beginning of the story he succumbs to the impulse to take his young, pretty second wife, Catherine, to meet his estranged father, a famous Hollywood director, at his New Mexico ranch. The visit does not go well for Tom. Old Sam Avery, the liveliest character in the novel, is as obnoxious as ever, "The Great Director . . . Mr. Big Rancher. Mr. Know Everything. Mr. Suave with your wife," as a visitor points out to Tom.
In fact, the relationship between Tom and his father deteriorates in inverse proportion to the burgeoning of relations between his father and his wife. Tom sulks and flounders, "the safe shoreline of maturity and marriage receding before my eyes, while behind me stirred the dark and murky waters of nameless old dangers." Catherine flirts maddeningly. Old Sam thoroughly enjoys stirring up the murky waters some. Inevitably, the waters do boil over and a reconciliation of sorts is achieved. Tom learns something. "Was it that we were father and son and doubtless loved each other as best we could?" Why not?
The novel is vulnerable to caricature because it is badly written, thin on character and lacking variety of voice and perspective, despite its snappy sequences of dialogue. Ironically, there is a moment in "Passage to Ararat" that provides a clue to what goes wrong in "Say Goodbye to Sam." Arlen has been talking about a story by William Saroyan, the Armenian-American writer, whom he greatly admires. He reflects, "It was not an important story, but it was a lovely story -- a story with a voice. It made one think with a kind of pleasure that J.D. Salinger must have heard that voice, and Richard Brautigan, and Jack Kerouac, and all those writers of the personal sound, the flower-writers, the writers of our modern Era of Feeling." A critical bull's-eye! And, sure enough, in his first novel Arlen becomes a flower-writer to surpass all flower-writers.
Arlen in this mode produces a choppy, sloppy kind of prose that almost parodies his literary heroes. "Catherine sitting on the edge of our bed, clipping her toenails. Blue running shorts, T-shirt. The taut, smooth skin on the inside of her thighs. One leg hanging down from the bed." From a writer as capable as the Arlen of "Passage to Ararat," writing like this, page after page, adds up to a particularly disappointing fictional debut.