Harry Mark Petrakis
by Keith Taylor
Right or wrong, we expect something from Chicago writers. The prose will be hard edged, the stories realistic and tough. With Greek American authors, however, we have a different stereotype, perhaps of a certain kind of playfulness, mixing the mythological and the magical with immigrant sentimentalities. In the work of Harry Mark Petrakis, the son of an Orthodox priest from Chicago, we get a lovely mix of both.
Petrakis, now well into his eighties, has almost always used his Greek ancestry as the central place for his fiction. Twenty years ago, in a frightening novel, Days of Vengeance, he wrote about immigrants from Crete coming to Utah in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the mines. His characters, poverty stricken at home, left sun and olive orchards to be poverty stricken and work twelve hours or more a day deep in the ground at the whims of arbitrary unseen bosses. Still, they carried their old habits of revenge and family justice with them in a way that could destroy the new life they tried to make out of the mine.
In Petrakis's most recent novel, The Orchards of Ithaca, Greektown has become more important than Greece, the community in Chicago more important than the country of origin, now a seldom visited symbol of the language and the religion. Orestes Panos, the protagonist of the novel, is co-owner of one of the better Greek restaurants on Halsted Street. He has just turned fifty, and he is finding pornography on the web an easier companion than Despina, his wife of twenty-three years. His daughter is going out with tattooed young men, non-Greeks, and she has just had her belly marred with the image of a moth. His son plans to leave his young wife and infant daughter and hit the road in an attempt to find himself. Orestes's mother-in-law seems to despise him, either because he never became a doctor or because he can't
live up to the high standard presented by actor Tom Selleck (whose photograph she wants buried with her). It is late 1999 in the book. Orestes dreams that he can save Bill Clinton from his presidential peccadilloes. A devout young priest has been accused of fondling the teenagers at church. Y2K is promising the meltdown of the infrastructure. And on top of all of this, a beautiful young blond woman Orestes meets in the library has decided that he is the reincarnation of Dante and she of Beatrice. It is almost more than Orestes can bear!
All of this can get very funny. But it is a sign of Harry Mark Petrakis's abilities that the novel doesn't end up being simply a humorous book. Perhaps he is saved by the tradition of Chicago realism. Even when things get craziest, the novelist always connects them to real places, real events, or real people (Chicago sports stars, politicians, and journalists all appear in the book). And Petrakis is willing to risk a lyrical flight or two. Here he describes the memory of an Orthodox Easter service:
At the stroke of midnight, the great vaulted church was hurled into darkness. Into that raven-winged blackness, a single lighted candle would be brought from the sanctuary, and from that solitary flame, hundreds of candles would flare into light. Orestes felt his heart bursting with the glow of that sacred illumination.
After all the laughs, The Orchards of Ithaca ends up containing a moving story that vividly re-creates one small community in one of our largest cities.
Harry Mark Petrakis reads from and discusses his novel at Shaman Drum on Sunday, March 13.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]