Α Writer’s Reflections

by Nick Mamatas

I came late to Harry Mark Petrakis, embarrassingly so. I was already a published writer and a first-time novelist when I found Reflections: A Writer’s Life, A Writer’s Work (1983) in the now defunct Serendipity Books in Berkeley. Even more embarrassing: I’m one of those fiction writers who prefers a fiction writer’s non-fiction. I’ll read all the essays, introductions, memoirs, and “letters to a young author” before checking out a single piece of short fiction, every time.

I was, of course, attracted to the distinctive Greek surname, like a dog picking up the scent of another canine that had recently passed by. Petrakis had faded from mainstream prominence when I was a child in the 1980s. My family wasn’t the sort to read Atlantic Monthly—or to have heard of it. Raymond Carver’s austere minimalism had achieved aesthetic hegemony, and his whiteness meant that counterbalances needed to come from authors of color, so mere romantic realists with ethnically inflected motifs, like Petrakis (or John Fante, another late discovery) hadn’t been taught to me in schools either. Assimilation was the order of the day, of course—why go to college at all if you didn’t want to be a middle-class white American?—though it is also true that few things overcomplicate racial categories beloved of left-wing college students like the phrase “Asia Minor.” Of course Greece is the very germ of Europe, and thus whiteness, and Turkey is Asia, but who keeps moving those borders, and how come we don’t quite look, or even act at times, white enough?

Reflections certainly was a collection of just that, reflections of my life and the lives of my extended family: yes, the twin Greek American curses of gambling and unsuccessful restaurateuring, which is just another kind of gambling except that when you go bust you get to eat the “no fries—” chips. Yes, the worst kinds of blue-collar work, with only a slim chance of an education and an escape, but certainly not via the arts. Yes, the dumb agony of long nights at the keyboard, yes the whoops of excitement at the first acceptance letter, though Petrakis’s came with a check for $400 in 1956 dollars, and mine with a check for $20 in 2001 dollars, and yes the repeated instances of recognition and estrangement when I finally read his short fiction.

Recognition: “Pericles on 31st Street” and the casual radicalism of the titular character. How to deal with a conniving slumlord? “‘Shoot him,’ Simonakis said loudly.” It was like almost every Greek American of that first generation was one bad day from digging a bandolier out from under the bed and becoming a klepht. (That’s “brigand” to any non-Greeks reading this.) Same here! What stakes we have in the system are contingent on assimilation and middle-class achievement, and when we fail to achieve either, it’s always good to have a back-up plan.

Estrangement: “The Journal of a Wife Beater” is more casual radicalism—the titular wife-beater ends up hospitalized by his wife, who engages in militant self-defense. It’s a funny story, but funnier is this: after reading it aloud to book clubs or at literary events, Petrakis would field questions, and inevitably an Anglo woman would raise her hand and ask, “But, Mr. Petrakis, do you really beat your wife?” Petrakis wasn’t quite white enough for a middle-class audience keen on performing the public consumption of improving fiction, but then again, who is?

Speaking of, when I was growing up, my father and all my male relatives frequently wore white a-cut undershirts. I did too. So did all the worst people on television sitcoms—it’s how the show signaled that the male characters were reactionary and dumb. But of course, I never read of such men in books. I was first, “informed,” for lack of a better word, that they were called “wife-beater” shirts by a member of the radical group the Lesbian Avengers, after we all ran away from the police one summer night. Our coalition’s shouted revolutionary slogan of “Stonewall was a riot, not a street march!” wasn’t appreciated by the residents of the million-dollar brownstones on either side of the aforementioned street we were marching down. We didn’t take it, but a few of us took some lumps. The shirt was handy for staunching blood. These days, of course, most radicals, vengeful or otherwise, would explain at length that “wife-beater” is a sexist term for a shirt. On the fact that it is also a term of class snobbery . . . silence, always silence.

Petrakis offered something other than silence. His stories of Greek America focused heavily on navigating the labyrinths of class, ethnicity, and masculinities and his memoirs … oh boy. His late Song of My Life (2014) is the sort of book one can only publish after most of one’s generation is already dead. As a young man, he spun such a tale about a fencing rival to his then girlfriend, complete with a climactic midnight duel to the death, that he prepared a fake chest wound with an iodine-soaked bandage to show off to her. When damaged lungs kept him out of World War II, he whipped up a story about a special deployment to Greece, and spent weeks hiding out in a neighboring town, pretending to be overseas. Swords and secret missions instead of souvlakia and mopping up—it would be sociopathic if Petrakis wasn’t so woebegone in his attempts to be a palikari (an honorable, brave young man).

And like the subtitle of Reflections makes clear, Petrakis clearly saw writing as work, despite the TV adaptations and movies, regardless of the awards. When his star was still rising, he took on “work”—writing a biography of the founder of Motorola. When the mid-century fascination with white ethnic literature faded, the big publishers turned their backs, but Petrakis kept working. He published mostly with university presses, regional publishers, and ebook services, and returned to his old muse and wrote another book about Motorola.

Petrakis did not die famous. The Chicago papers ran his obituary, but he was last mentioned in the New York Times in 2011, in the obit of Motorola CEO Robert W. Galvin. His work is in print, to the extent that it is, thanks to his own efforts as a self-publisher of his backlist. Can he make a comeback? Perhaps. Like the Italian American John Fante, who was out of print and fucking off writing scripts for Hollywood round files until Charles Bukowski mentioned him in his novel Women, Petrakis needs a literary champion. One more famous than me. Scour those used bookstores, as I once did. Petrakis is vital, and not because he’s everyone’s mustachioed uncle, but because of his lyrical writing, his insights into the immigrant experience, and his adventuresome historical fiction. There are generations of Greek American writers emerging, and they’ll come to Petrakis even later than I did, but come they must. There will not be another like him.

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including The Last Weekend and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other venues. He has written about books and publishing for Poets & Writers, Village Voice, and Fine Books & Collections.