Song Of My Life

BOOK 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 heart’s 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 on him.


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 can’t 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.