Harry Mark Petrakis Essay - Critical Essays

Petrakis, Harry Mark

Petrakis, Harry Mark 1923–

Petrakis, an award-winning American novelist and short story writer, is best known for his stories of Greek and Greek-American life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

For years Harry Mark Petrak is has been interpreting the Greek-American "experience" to an increasingly wide audience. It should come as no surprise that his … story collection, "The Waves of Night," contains a colorful assortment of the moods and concepts that have been traditionally, and sometimes erroneously, associated with the Greek approach to life. Because the stories are low-keyed and Petrakis's literary style, like his artistic aim, is extremely simple and unpretentious, the basic spirit affliction in these tales comes through all the more forcefully. Thus in his own quiet way Petrakis succeeds where an Updike would merely outrage us with immature exhibitionism or a Malamud bore us with contrived stage gestures.

Petrakis's vision is a tragic one, redeemed only occasionally by a brief wild exultation, suggesting Kazantzakis's Zorba the Greek. He writes in fact like an unaffected, present-day Sophocles out of Chicago (where Petrakis was born and raised, and where many of his stories are set). Usually ill at ease in the presence of the komos (revel) or gamos (ritualized union of the sexes) so important in the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, he accompanies almost every story with an implied choric lament: Woe, oh woe! Call no man happy while he lives! So much for the vanity of human wishes! So much for the follies of the human heart! Even the odysseys in these stories are sad, and frequently disastrous.

Samuel I. Bellman, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 28, 1969, p. 40.

Harry Mark Petrakis is so sincere a writer it's hard to tell how honest he is. The subject of "In the Land of Morning" is grim, or at least glum, but its treatment is mechanical; its attitudes are earthy but their expression literary; its solemnity is muscle-bound with clichés, and seems to move with the stomping waddle of a science-fiction movie monster….

The language describing all the characters comes from the public domain. Indeed, most interesting about the book is its combination of "gut" emotions and abstractly common language. It may be that Petrakis hoped to give mythic grandeur to his story by telling it in words resonant with universality; but words resonant with universality have a way of giving out a hollow clank, like book-jacket copy….

One's sense of the book's not quite trustworthy earnestness, its tone of borrowed sincerity, is borne out by its ending, when after the dark brooding tale has trudged inexorably to its shattering climax, the local priest stands on his apartment rooftop, to give the novel its vague and irrelevantly upbeat title…. Someone once said, "never end a novel on a rooftop." Even if "In the Land of Morning" didn't end on a rooftop, it would be the kind of novel that does.

Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1973, p. 47.