Harry Mark Petrakis resurfaces as an octogenarian with a pair of new books
by Martin Northway
August 20, 2003
At 80 years of age, author Harry Mark Petrakis exemplifies Dylan Thomas' raging entreaty "Do not go gentle into that good night." The Greek-American literary lion has neither lost his growl nor his swagger, though he may limp a little due to that most Greek of ailments--a torn Achilles tendon suffered last year.
In the study of the Indiana Dunes home where he and wife Diana have reared three sons, he tethered himself to his computer (like Odysseus bound to the mast of his ship), polishing his ninth novel and eighteenth book, "Twilight of the Ice"--just released by Southern Illinois University Press--and charged through another novel, "The Orchards of Ithaca."
With the injury slowly mending, "the only way to begin to make time pass was to work," Petrakis reports. At the same time, "that intense effort, aided by the facility the computer allows you, allowed me to do in six or seven months several drafts of the [new] novel."
The terrain of both volumes is familiar to him--the streets of Chicago in which this son of a Greek Orthodox priest spent his youth and young adulthood--and so too the protagonists, both Greek Americans. But the books required different writer's chops. The early-1950s "Twilight of the Ice" is elegiac yet realistic, but Petrakis believes the pre-millennial "Orchards of Ithaca" has some of his best humor since 1966's exuberant "A Dream of Kings" earned him a National Book Award nomination.
Based on a short story that was one of friend and film director Sam Peckinpah's favorites, "Twilight of the Ice" evokes memories of the tough men who iced railroad cars on the South Side after World War II, before flinging great blocks of ice was made obsolete by modern refrigeration. Its pages include a cruel, elephantine straw boss, an alcoholic dispatcher seeking the cure but longing for family and home, and an aging prostitute who loves the protagonist and in turn is cherished by him.
The nearly unlettered, powerful but declining iceman Mike Zervakis meets the usual heroic standards of Petrakis, who New York Times contributor John Wakeman observed "asks us to believe that a man can be godlike, then reminds us that the most godlike man is only human." Zervakis' friend, street preacher Israel Sullivan, proclaims humanity's redemption in a coming ice age will rely upon chosen icemen; meanwhile, battling age and encroaching progress, Zervakis longs for a worthy successor.
"I tend to create larger-than-life characters," Petrakis confesses, "not in terms of physical size or dimensions but larger than life in terms of their aspirations. You know, I want somebody like Lear, crying out to heaven.Whatever happens, I don't want a man to slide through life crying. I want him to fight against the pricks of fate."
While sharing some of Zervakis' qualities, he insists, "I don't feel I'm particularly heroic. I don't feel I'm particularly adventurous, and so I create heroes who are heroic and adventurous.... If I'm close to any character in 'Twilight,' it's Rafer [the dispatcher exiled from his family], although I had no alcoholic problem but I had a gambling problem. One addiction let me write coherently of another addiction."
Petrakis thinks maturity aids in creating diverse characters. "When I write a story or create a chapter in a book, I have an enormous repository of experience to draw upon," he says. "I've looked into the faces of so many men and women, have shared confidences with them, have heard the foolishness they spoke and uttered absurdities myself."
As a reminder of both humanity's failings and optimism--including his own--in his study Petrakis has a relief of legendary young Icarus, who tried to ascend on waxed wings but plummeted into the sea when he neared the sun.
Maybe Petrakis' tales have also benefited from a career in which he has had to improvise, experiencing various aspects of life and work. In his poignant memoir of his immigrant parents and his youth ("Stelmark: A Family Memoir," republished in "Reflections"), he reports how, while working to get stories published in his twenties, he struggled with short-term jobs, business failure and a gambling habit that threatened to tear his marriage apart.
One gig was working as a dispatcher at an ice company--the experience behind "Twilight." "I was the observer and saw what that world [of icemen] was like," Petrakis recalls. "I admired their agility and strength and the sense that they were doing something that was important to them."
While writing and publishing stories, collections and novels, he has also done public-relations work, taught writing workshops, and given readings and lectures. The priestly father endures in the son's powerful, dramatic voice. He was even a traveling lecturer, living like an over-the-road salesman. A vision he retains from then is how "I dreamt I died and the undertaker couldn't close my mouth!"
In the 1980s he survived a neurological disorder that drove him nearly to suicide. After penning a commissioned biography of Chicago businessman Henry Crown, the author contracted with Motorola to write a company history with field research spanning much of the nineties--a rewarding and remunerative business commitment, but one that precluded writing longer fiction.
Some of his essays appeared in 1999 in "Tales of the Heart: Dreams and Memories of a Lifetime" (Ivan R. Dee), including an evocation of one of his seven journeys to Greece. Then, his work with Motorola complete, "I think, there was building a compulsion for my work, and 'Twilight of the Ice' just exploded for me. I think I was trying to make up for lost time."
Now he contemplates possibly finishing a cycle of novels about the 1820s Greek revolution and civil war. That daunting task began with his 1976 "The Hour of the Bell," critically regarded but not the sales success he had hoped.
Completing this epic of real Greek heroes--perhaps his final literary legacy--would require energy and courage. He draws strength from Diana, both his companion and valued critic.
"We are now bound together as close as any two people can be," he says, "on the threshold of what is going to be the greatest adventure of our lives, and that's entry into the forest of old age.
We are eager now and hopeful, and pray that we're able to look after one another for as long as we can, as well as we can--knowing that forces are now at work over which we have no control." Meanwhile, his hands will continue to flutter across his keyboard, until the sun melts his wings and the storyteller falls into the sea.