James Leo Herlihy

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

James Leo Herlihy (HUR-luh-hee) was born in Detroit in 1927, the son of William Francis and Grace (Oberer) Herlihy. Of German-Irish descent, Herlihy was raised in Detroit and in Chillicothe, Ohio. He started writing at an early age. After graduating from high school in 1944 and serving in the U.S. Navy until 1946, Herlihy entered the highly innovative Black Mountain College. After graduating, he decided to try acting as a career and went to the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre. His acting experience there and in other West Coast theaters between 1948 and 1952 encouraged him to write several plays, beginning with Streetlight Sonata, which was produced in Pasadena in 1950. Herlihy also appeared in a number of plays as an actor; in 1963 he played Jerry in a Paris production of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. He also appeared in several films, among them Four Friends (1981), directed by Arthur Penn. The effects of his theater training and experiences are evident in his plays and novels, some of which proved to be successful cinematic vehicles, peopled with characters who speak with a rare authenticity.

Herlihy’s first novel, All Fall Down, is a convincing portrayal of an adolescent boy, Clinton Williams, who is confronted with the cruelty and evil of contemporary society but gains a measure of wisdom from his experience. Herlihy skillfully presents a number of entries in Clinton’s notebooks that reveal his gradually changing attitudes. The novel invites comparison with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and The Catcher in the Rye (1951), but it finally must be taken on its own terms, for Herlihy’s ability to render the seamier side of contemporary urban life—gritty trailer parks and cheap motels, the world of drifters and perverts—gives his fiction a special contemporary importance.

This facet of Herlihy’s fiction is largely responsible for the success of Midnight Cowboy , which manages to arouse sympathy for a shallow innocent named Joe Buck and a petty thief named Rico Rizzo; the degree to which they are victimized by urban...

(The entire section is 487 words.)