REVIEW by Willard Manus
Harry Mark Petrakis published his first short story, Pericles on 31st
Street, in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1957. Since then he has written
twenty-five books of fiction, essays and memoirs, the latest of which is
SONG OF MY LIFE (University of South Carolina Press).
Petrakis at ninety looks back on his life with honesty and humility, delving
(as he puts it) into the bazaars of memory in an attempt to understand himself
better. He begins with his childhood, which was largely spent in an inner-city
neighborhood in Chicago, where his Cretan-born father was a Greek Orthodox
priest. Petrakis had a terrible time as a kid, having to cope with gang
fights, an abusive Greek-religion teacher, and a bout with TB which incapacitated
him for two years. The long confinement at home did have one positive side,
though; it gave him time to read to his hearts content, especially
the classic adventure tales of Jack London, whose novel Martin Eden,
about an unlettered sailor who taught himself to write, became a major influence
Like Jack London, Petrakis had to endure many years of rejection and failure
before he was finally able to sell a short story. During that bitter time,
he also had to battle his own demons: an addiction to gambling and get-rich-quick
schemes; and a tendency to embellish the truth while courting the woman
who eventually became his wife, Diana Perparos. The fetching daughter
of a Greek immigrant who repaired shoes for a living, Diana worked in
a South Shore restaurant. She had every reason to dump Petrakis when he
finally confessed his sins; instead she showed him understanding and compassion.
They married soon after that; their union has lasted seven decades and
is a testament to the power of mutual respect and love.
Petrakis also sheds light on his professional life as a writer: eventually
winning prizes for his short stories and publishing such best-selling
novels as Lion at My Heart, A Dream of Kings and
Nick the Greek. He writes amusingly about his experiences
in Hollywood, working with director Sam Peckinpah on an adaptation of
Pericles on 31st Street, getting fired from the production
of A Dream of Kings because of creative differences
with the star of the film, Anthony Quinn, who flew at him one day, screaming
You give me words I cant speak!
SONG OF MY LIFE shimmers with all the warmth, wisdom and mother wit we
have come to expect from the author over the years. Petrakis may be in
his nineties, but there has been no falling off of vigor or intensity.
If anything, he gets better and stronger each time out, an accomplishment
which is the mark of a truly great writer.