Harry Mark Petrakis’ new book, Song of my Life: A Memoir, is a work of lyrical power and poignancy that may prove to be among the most important works Petrakis has produced in a writing career that spans nearly six decades and has produced twenty-five books, including novels, short stories and memoirs.
Professors and students in colleges and universities may do well to incorporate this book as a model of how to plan and construct an American autobiography. Like the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, and even Maya Angelou’s nearly matchless I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Petrakis manages to weave a morality tale of great depth and emotion, while at the same time unraveling a life still in the process of discovering at the age of ninety-one.
The book makes no effort to disguise any warts or blemishes of a life that he lived both in the shadowed dingy rooms where gamblers gathered, and in the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago, from the grassy Midway and the lakefront to the crowded inner city neighborhoods. Petrakis tells us about his early years of illness when, suffering from tuberculosis, he is confined to bed for two years. This period of bed-rest nurtured his imagination and provided him endless hours to read and develop his lifelong fascination with stories. As a youth he stole sex magazines he used to masturbate and then, at about eighteen, began a five year addiction with gambling. After marrying at twenty-one, nearly destroying his marriage at the beginning, he continued gambling. The depths into which he descended are revealed when he writes of borrowing $200 from his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, whose monthly salary was that amount, to pay rent and utilities on the studio apartment he occupied with his wife, only to take the money back to the handbook and losing it all.
But like most of Petrakis’ writing, Song of my Life is not simply a tale of existential despair that includes a painfully explicit three year period of severe depression when he comes close to committing suicide. Through the guidance of a mother and father, both of whom were motivated with faith and purpose, we see the young Harry slowly evolving through his punishing obsessions to a discovery of his calling, the writing of stories.
The book then describes the author’s perilous journey into becoming a published writer. The reader suffers with Petrakis as he experiences rejection after rejection for ten years before emerging from the darkness of anonymity with his first published story, Pericles on 31st Street, bought by the Atlantic Monthly when he was thirty-three. Slowly, we see his transition into a more mature writer who has twice been nominated for The National book Award, winning The O’Henry Prize and other awards, and then gaining the New York Times Best Seller List. He experiences the ultimate bounty of having his novel, A Dream of Kings, produced as a major motion picture starring Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas, and Inger Stevens.
Through the Hollywood sections of the book, working in California on the screenplay of his novel, we share Petrakis collaborating with Sam Peckinpah, Anthony Quinn the director Fred Coe, and meeting such luminaries as Paul Newman, Jules Dassin, Melina Mercouri, Jack Palance, Nick Dennis, and Daniel Mann. In one revealing commentary, Petrakis explains that none of the writers who were invited to the private screening rooms where new films were previewed were permitted to speak or communicate with any of the stars in the room. In the end, Petrakis expresses a chilling assessment of both Hollywood and his place in that society: But if we had stayed in that volatile environment, the Hollywood culture rife with temptations, my wife and I might not have remained together. . . . And, most somber of all scenarios, I might have never written another novel or short story.
The final section of the book, labeled simply Epilogue, is the most moving portion of the entire tale. In one of his early trips to Greece and Crete, where he has traveled nine times, the author is taken to a local tavern frequented only by the natives. The audience waits impatiently for a disheveled old guitar player named Sotiris Paleomantis who sings and dances a song called the “Song of my Life.” In a final passage as powerful as the ending of a great American novel, Petrakis writes: My own arms and legs grown brittle, my shoulders stooped, sounds for me grown fainter, images blurred, I understand him now in a way I could not fully understand him then. We are joined once more, a pair of old men singing, dancing and writing their life’s journey.
Harry Mark Petrakis is one of the great American writers to emerge from the city of Chicago. And Song of my Life: A Memoir, in addition to poignantly revealing a life, is also about great writing. Now, after outliving most of his contemporaries, Petrakis still manages to make his prose sing and dance as powerfully as any epic poem. It is simply a delight to experience such a finely crafted piece of writing from one of the most masterful storytellers of our time.
(By Spencer Michael Farmans. He is professor of literature and writing, having done extensive work with the literature of Petrakis and is the author of three books of poetry)