His Los Angeles Times stories revealing state sanctioned murder and cover-up in California prisons were praised by The Nation magazine as “one of great journalistic achievements of the decade.” Fellow writers at PEN and Sigma Delta Chi have singled out the lyrical quality of his writing in award-winning stories on life and death in California’s heartland. In a review of his most recent book, “West of the West,” the Washington Post called Mark a “great reporter…. tenacious and unrelenting.”
Like the legendary Carey McWilliams, Mark digs deep in the dirt of the Golden State, finding tragedies hidden from most Californians. With equal passion, he chronicles the plight of both farm workers and farmers. His stories on the land are told from the close up of a native whose own family narrative is found in the same soil. His grandfather Aram's first job in America was picking the fruits and vegetables of the San Joaquin Valley; his father, Ara, was born on a raisin farm outside Fresno.
Mark’s first book, “In My Father’s Name,” is a stirring memoir that weaves together the history of his Armenian family and hometown of Fresno with his decades-long search to find the men who murdered his father in 1972. A full-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review saw Mark’s journey to wrest the truth from his haunted past as a kind of "Moby Dick" struggle.
His second book, the bestselling “The King of California,” co-authored with Rick Wartzman, tells the epic story of the Boswell farming family and the building of a secret American empire in the middle of California. Named one of the top ten books of the year by the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, "The King of California" won a 2004 California Book Award and the 2005 William Saroyan International Writing Prize.
His third book, a 2009 collection of stories called “West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State,” received critical acclaim in the Atlantic Monthly and Los Angeles Times and a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which compared Mark’s “sure and supple essays” to the great social portraits of Joan Didion and William Saroyan.
"It is Arax's personal connection to the land,” the review noted, “that pushes his collection past mere reportage to a high literary enterprise that beautifully integrates the private and idiosyncratic with the sweep of great historical forces."
A top graduate of Fresno State and Columbia University, Mark left the Los Angeles Times in 2007 after a public fight over censorship of his story on the Armenian Genocide. He has taught literary non fiction at Claremont McKenna College and Fresno State University and served as a senior policy director for the California Senate Majority Leader. The father of three children who lives on a suburban farm in Fresno, Mark still throws a mean batting practice to his Little League players.
My Father's Murder: An Epilogue
One day not long ago, I drove into a valley deep in the mountains of Oregon , a swath of green pastures edged by wild blackberries and split by a creek that filled up a nearby lake. It seemed a pleasant enough place in the world, a place I might even visit again to fish the rivers of the Cascade range or soak in the 1940s scenery of Oregon’s hidden valleys. That was a trip I owed my family, though my wife, who had known me since I was kid, no longer believed I was capable of such leisure. “You, a tourist wandering the byways?” she said, scoffing at the image of me and her and the children free at last. “You don’t go anywhere without a purpose.” This wasn’t altogether true—our volumes of family photos showed otherwise—but I knew full well what she was getting at. The road that had taken me from the middle of California to this spot on the other side of Grants Pass was nothing if not purposeful. For more than half my life, I had been looking to find the answers to my father’s murder, only to discover that the secret rested not in the hometown I had spent so many years prying into but here, five hundred miles away, in a tiny trailer set back in the woods alongside a creek they called Cow.
My father, Ara Arax, was gunned down by two strangers who walked into his nightclub in Fresno on a foggy night in January 1972. He was forty years old and I, his oldest child, was fifteen. Why we assumed that the police wouldn’t solve the murder, I’m not sure. But that night in the emergency room, I told my family that I would. All through my twenties, as my mother lost a fight with cancer and my wife gave birth to our first child, I tracked down the names in my notebook. There were barmaids turned junkies, a bouncer who rode with the Hells Angels and one bartender who had become a hit man. I approached each one as Ara’s boy “Markie,” and they confessed all manner of sin. I even wrote a book about my journey, a combined memoir and investigation that took me back to the land of my grandfather’s birth, a murdered nation. No matter how deep I dug, though, I never found my father’s killers, never completely put to rest the rumors of drugs and police corruption and a dad who coached Little League by day and entertained Fresno’s crooks by night.
Then thirty years after the murder, I was handed a new name--Sue Gage. She was the keeper of the secrets, I was told, the woman who had set my father’s death in motion. Not long after the murder, she had left California and moved to a tucked away valley in southern Oregon . She had been living outside a town called Azalea ever since, each year breathing a little easier as the trail that led back to Fresno and my father grew more and more faint.
For weeks, I debated different ways of approaching her—by deception or third party—before deciding to pick up the phone and arrange a meeting face-to-face. What tone of voice do you take, I wondered, when the person on the other end, frightened and cagey, holds answers to questions that have defined, twisted even, your adult life? What words do you let tumble out? Part of me, the son, couldn’t stomach the idea of any small talk. Part of me, the journalist, knew how to soften up the wary by playing the earnest good guy. And so I dialed her number and put on my best performance. How I sounded so grateful when she told me what a pleasure it was to hear from Ara’s son. How I listened so patiently as she gabbed on about the coyote unnerving her pit bull and the long-awaited vacation she was about to take with her grandkids.
Now I was headed down a last stretch of road toward her trailer, past Christmas tree farms and cows grazing the hillside and tin-roofed cabins spewing thick gray plumes of smoke. As the hilltop dipped down into the valley, the smoke became mist and the mist turned to rain. Through the windshield splatters, I could see a tiny woman in a red turtleneck and jeans standing at the side of the road. The closer I got, the bigger her smile became. I didn’t know what Sue Gage looked like. She had my father’s face to know me.
There was a time when I dreamed of nothing but such a moment. I’d sit in bed at night and stare at the police composite of one of the gunmen drawn from the memory of a single eyewitness. He had slicked back hair, high cheekbones, boot-shaped sideburns , and a neat mustache. I spent years lifting weights, transforming my body in anticipation of something primal that would surely come over me when I found him. I imagined how the perfect hardness of his face would melt when he realized that the man standing before him was the fifteen-year-old son.
What awaited me now wasn’t that killer but a woman who had provided a gun and a half-thought-out plan to the shooters. Two of her former boyfriends, all these years later, had come clean to the Fresno police. They told the story of a minor league beauty with a cunning that made dangerous men carry out her schemes. That she had grown old like the rest of them, with a bad liver and a mouth full of bad teeth, might have led one to miscalculate the challenge she presented. But seeing her standing there in the weeds—in the rain without an umbrella, smiling, smiling—it was hard not to appreciate the cunning that remained. As I got down from my truck, she moved closer for what I expected was a handshake. Then the smile vanished. She was staring at my hand, the one holding a notebook and pen.
“Are you here as a son or as a writer?” she asked.
It was a plain question posed in a flat twang. Maybe she thought it deserved a plain answer. The answer was my life. I wanted to tell her that the son had become a writer on account of murder. He had practiced and honed all the skills of journalistic investigation across a long career for just this one moment. Son, murder, writer—we were one. Before I could answer, she looked me cold in the eye.
“If you’re looking to pin the blame,” she said, “you’ve come to the right place.”
My Little Brother the Football Coach
Once before, I tried to write about high school football. It was my younger brother Donny’s first season coaching at Kerman High, and as I followed his Lions east and west across the valley, I found myself strangely drawn to the lights rising in the distance out of vineyards and alfalfa fields. Sanger vs. Reedley, Selma vs. Kingsburg, Parlier vs. Fowler.
I knew how those Friday Nights shaped the lives of young men and how they brought together communities with little else to hold on to. I knew that Texas had nothing on our valley, at least not when you headed in the direction of Rolinda and stepped into the dim corners of Kaufman Field and took a whiff of sweet September: cut hay and cow dung and raisins baking in the rows.
Yet the right words eluded me, or rather the wrong words, too maudlin, kept getting in the way. And so I never wrote about the deeper meaning of high school football even as my brother dubbed me “the oldest ball boy in the valley” and I shadowed his coaching path from Kerman to Reedley to Fresno, back to our alma mater, Bullard High.
My brother is the reason I believe in nature over nurture. He was seven years old when our father, Ara, was killed, but he has his same walk, same gestures, same vein bulging out of his throat when he gets excited. Like our father, he gets excited too easily. I knew God intended Dad to be a coach—not a grape grower, not a grocer, not a bar owner—the first time I watched him giving instructions to my Little League teammates. He was patient in a way he could never be with me.
Yet nature works funny angles, intentions that fail to stick to fathers only to land again with sons. I imagine my brother is the coach my father could have been, would have been, had he not given up that football scholarship at USC and returned home to the farm.
My brother and I have never talked about it, but I know he coaches with an eye always to our father. Maybe this is why he puts up with me, second Dad, standing next to him during games. I have not always minded my bounds. I have yelled at refs and shouted at opposing coaches. I have exhorted my brother, during endless seasons of fealty to the Wing T offense, to call a pass play now and then. But in all those years, only once did he lose patience with me.
At Chukchansi Stadium a few years back, we were on our own 35-yard line, and it was fourth down. Suddenly he got that look—gambler’s gullible—in his eye.
“Surely, you’re not going to go for it,” I said.
“Last time I checked,” he snapped, “you were the writer, and I was the football coach.”
So there we were last Friday night in the rain of McLane Stadium, my brother with his headsets and me with my towels. For four quarters, I tried to keep my mouth shut as I dried three pigskins rotated into the game by a team of younger ball boys, my 11-year-old, Jake, among them.
We all felt the weight. Back before my brother was a star linemen and linebacker in the early 1980s, before I was a quarterback in the mid 1970s, all the way back to Bullard’s beginning in 1954, the football Knights, the “Fighting Knights” as my brother renamed them, had never won a valley championship.
Remarkably, I did not have to conjure up the past. Many of the faces were right there on the sidelines—players from each of my brother’s ten years at Bullard, players and coaches from his era and my era and those before. Bullard’s entourage, the Bee sports writer, tongue in cheek, called us. This is what my brother had built. All his 70-hour work weeks, all his Hall of Fame dinners honoring past legends, all his talk about the families who chose not to flee to the Clovis schools but had stuck to the hardpan of northwest Fresno. Bullard Pride.
As the clock counted down and the valley title became ours, a perfect 13-0 season, I gave my brother a kiss on the cheek. Then I clutched my two sons, Joe, a past Knight, and Jake, a future Knight, and my sister, Michelle, the school board member who had been named “honorary team captain” for all her work to improve the Bullard community.
I looked down at my hands, they were pink from the leather of rubbing so many pigskins dry, and then at the mass of family, friends, players and fans huddled in the mud of midfield, and then at my brother’s wife, Kristine, who had struggled 15 years to give him a first child, a miracle baby named Ara. It was one of those moments that as they are forming in your eyes, you whisper to yourself, “This is a memory.” Indelible, fixed, forever.
Walking the Graveyard with Silly Willie Saroyan
The last time I saw my grandfather, Aram Arax, he was badgering an old black lady in the courtyard of their nursing home in east Fresno, his chest rattling with pneumonia and his mind stuck on one last poem he was still composing, an epic of early Fresno and his good friend William Saroyan, who
was seven years dead already.
"Lady Comrade," my tiny grandfather pleaded, his belt cinched to the last hole and pee dripping out the bottom of his pant leg. "You must listen to my masterpiece!"
He then recited what he could of the poem he had written on and off for two years, writing to stave off blindness and senility, bent over paper the way my mother used to bend over her dough, braiding it line by line. It never quite came together. He had titled it "To the Master," and he seemed unaware that it was too full of gushing pride about Saroyan, the writer who had given voice to my grandfather's exile and the exile of 30,000 other Armenians who had found their way to this sunbaked valley of vineyards and orchards ringed by mountains.
"Look," my grandfather had marveled as the train chugged into Fresno in the summer of 1921. "It's just like the old land."
And so it was, even if the Sierra wasn't Mt. Ararat and even if the valley's Thompson grape was poor cousin to the sweet jeweled berries of an Armenian homeland 2,500 years old. For better and worse, Grandpa and his countrymen had been reborn in a new Armenia called Fresno, ash tree in Spanish, and Willie Saroyan was their chronicler.
In the early days of Saroyan's fame, they didn't know what to make of the young writer who was spending more time in the waterfront bars of San Francisco. Whenever they would glimpse him back home, he was wearing stained chinos and talking in a voice that boomed and bellowed, bragging how he wrote a short story every day and an entire play in a single week. He took their exile and ethnic suffocations and gassy sermons and turned them into gems of comedy and tragedy--short stories like "The Pomegranate Trees," "My Cousin Dikran, the Orator" and "Big Valley Vineyard."
The Armenians of Fresno would have preferred something more weighty, something about how the Turks had killed 1.5 million of their family members in the 20th Century's first genocide. Saroyan would leave such matters to writers like Franz Werfel, whose monumental novel "Forty Days of Musa Dagh" would memorialize a village of Armenians trapped in a mountain redoubt, heroically fending off waves of Turkish gendarmes.
Saroyan had another calling: to capture the dignity of the working man caught in the vice of America's Depression and the mischief of growing up in the San Joaquin Valley surrounded by a bunch of crazy Saroyans. No one evoked the wonders of childhood better. This is how he began the short story "The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse."
One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.
Aram, he said.
I jumped out of bed and looked out the window. I couldn't believe what I saw. It wasn't morning yet, but it was summer and with daybreak not many minutes around the corner of the world it was light enough for me to know I wasn't dreaming. My cousin Mourad was sitting on a beautiful white horse.
Fresno never fully appreciated Saroyan, not in life and certainly not in death. And, truth be known, he hated the place. He hated and loved Fresno the way only a native could love and hate it. Fresno bluebloods, if there ever was such a thing, weren't fond of the Armenian habit of "going public," whole families taking their watermelon and sharp cheddar cheese on the front porch and tattling loud into the summer night. With restrictive real estate codes, Fresno barred Armenians from living in certain parts of town through the 1950s. We were blackballed from Sunnyside Country Club.
Only occasionally did Saroyan deal directly with the hurt of this exclusion. But if you read him closely, it's not hard to spot the pain, a kind of quiet insinuation, the exaltation of the outsider.
Today, a half century later, it is the Armenian developers who pervert the city's orderly plan for growth with their vision of a new uptown near the river, and the Armenians who all but own Sunnyside Country Club.
Whenever Grandpa wrote about Saroyan, he wrote about flight--cranes and swallows and other birds of Armenia that left one season but always returned the next. It was an apt metaphor. Later in life, Saroyan bought two tract houses side-by-side in the middle of town and spent half the year in Paris and
half in Fresno. He would return every autumn, after the last raisin had been turned and before the first call of ponies at the Fresno Fair. He was a gambling fool. Horses, roulette tables, craps, the worse the odds the better. He said he despised money.
In those autumns of the 1970s, Grandma Alma used to put on glorious dinners with Saroyan as main attraction. I was the oldest grandchild, a would-be writer, and they gave me a seat at the table alongside the motley of painters and poets and old Reds from Grandpa and Grandma's Party days. Saroyan devoured the grape leaf dolma and cracked wheat pilaf and put up with the crew of pretenders. I noticed right off that he spent most of his time talking and drinking Armenian cognac with the raisin farmer, Hodgie Kandarian.
Hodgie was a gentle man with kind eyes and proud hands and he and his brother, in the manner of too many Armenian sons, lived alone as bachelors on an 60-acre spread. The brother was something of a stock market savant. He sat in a slump and hardly made eye contact except to mutter the next hot tip. He was bullish on Wolverine shoes and Fruit of the Loom underwear.
Saroyan and Hodgie talked about harvests and cousins long gone. Saroyan seemed to have mastered three generations of Hodgie's family tree, a skill honed from walking Ararat Cemetery and reading aloud the tombstones in the rain. After dinner, it was my job to drive the drunken master back home. On the front lawn, he stopped and shook his fist at the night sky.
"Drive me to Armenia," he bellowed.
Years later, after discovering again the short stories in "My Name is Aram," I thought I saw something of this lonely Saroyan in the character of Uncle Melik, the sanguine farmer who refused to believe that his patch of Fresno desert could grow anything but the finest pomegranates. After two or three seasons coaxing nothing but horned toads and tumbleweeds from the dry earth, Uncle Melik finally managed to pick eleven precious boxes of the ancient fruit, only to discover that the wholesale produce houses in far off Chicago could not find a single buyer.
So the eleven boxes came back. All winter long, my uncle and I ate pomegranates in our spare time.
They are all dead now, Uncle Melik and Grandpa Arax and Saroyan and Hodgie. Gone, too, is their Fresno, its Victorian downtown, its domed courthouse. Today, there seems no easy way to stop the suburban sprawl, to lure the speculator's dollar back to the center. Downtown Fresno now boasts the highest vacancy rate of any downtown in the state. There is talk of the magic of a $30 million baseball stadium and a meandering lake to awaken the ghosts.
Sometimes in the winter fog I drive by Saroyan's old house and try to find the bronze memorial posted on the garage. It was here that Grandpa and I paid a visit in the summer of 1980, on my way to Columbia University to decide between a future in law or journalism. The room was filled with rocks of all shapes and sizes and Saroyan, who looked smaller than usual, told me he collected them to remind himself that art should be simple. He said he never used a vocabulary of more than 300 words.
"You must write about what you know in the language that you know it," he said. He talked about the solitude every writer must find. "It's lonely sometimes but it isn't abject loneliness. Rather a kind of majestic one, a kinship with larger things."
It was time to go and he showed us to the front door. Then, from behind his back, like a magician, he produced a copy of his latest book, "Obituaries."
"Here," he said, "this is for you. For New York City. Don't be put off by the title. It's not about death at all. It's about living."
When I got to the car I opened the book and on the first blank page, to my surprise and absolute delight, he had penned a small note. I read it to Pop.
"For Aram Arax, grandfather, and to Mark Arax, grandson. Fellow Armenians. Fellow writers. It is a track. It is a profession. But most of all writing it being alive. Continued good luck, Bill Saroyan."
He died of cancer a few months later, uttering one of the great parting lines of our time: "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?"
I was in New York and Grandpa broke the news to me over the phone.
"We have lost our crane," he said.