"Literary Lion in Winter," by Dame Henriques
Shortly after I heard from my mother that our close friend, the novelist Sol Yurick, had died at age 87, the obits began appearing. I was glad that Sol, the first serious writer I knew and a strong influence on me as a teenager, was getting recognition. But I was also chagrined that the obits almost exclusively focused on The Warriors, a work he wrote in 1965 about warring New York gangs based loosely on Xenophon’s Anabasis that went on to became a movie and cult hit. Sure, it was a fast read and his most popular work, filled with his requisite cast of rogues, misanthropes, disaffected youth and innocents but the gang bang work hardly defined Sol, who liked to remind people that he wrote it in all of three weeks. His more substantive novels that made a stir in the ‘60s and ‘70s—The Bag, Fertig, and his short story collection, Someone Just Like You—and his later works such as An Island Death, Richard A. and extended nonfiction essay, Metatron, were hardly considered though they defined Sol far more than the Warriors.
Taking Someone Just Like You down from my bookshelf after years of neglect, I’m impressed by the writing, though it’s hard for me to separate the work from the man. I can’t really judge his literary merit against the backdrop of the ‘60s. I’ll leave that to the Ph.Ds. I can just appreciate the words, like the opening of the short story, “The Annealing”:
She lived from day to day and didn’t much care which day it was. If she laughed once or twice, laughed big that day, she had it made. If she cried more than she laughed, she knew it wasn’t her day. Sometimes it wasn’t her day, not really, for weeks on end. Sometimes, with that liquor sloshing around in her, it was her day, her night, her everytime.
This is the sordid tale of a woman with five kids caught up in the welfare bureaucracy who becomes the victim of a state-employed psychiatrist. It’s related to his longer work, The Bag, which he felt was his best novel, and from the first words displays a richness that came from close observation. The only contemporary I can think of that’s mining a similar vein, with a dogged eye and compassion for the powerless, is the non-fiction writer Katherine Boo. Sol, though, was a trenchant critic of society, of capitalism, and of the ideology that underpinned it, and he often let his rage show. As the novelist Brian Morton wrote in The Nation back in 1983: “Yurick has always been fascinated by the myths that mask relations of power and prevent a dominated population from understanding its condition. His novels are filled with deluded true believers, passionate adherents of ideologies that leave them incapable of seeing what’s in front of their eyes.”
Fertig, which caught the eye of actor Alec Baldwin, was also made into a movie, “The Confession.” The book tells the story of a father whose son died because of medical neglect in the ER. Driven to despair and then rage, Fertig turns on the doctors and administrators to eke out his revenge. But the movie twisted the story, which was really too bad, because Sol was three or four decades ahead with this tale of an out-of-control medical system that could cause a person to snap.
If Sol targeted malevolent institutions, he also had no patience for poseurs, especially the literati, who traded on their name and access. In a scathing February 7, 1966 Nation review of Truman Capote’s celebrated novel In Cold Blood, he skewered the myth that Capote had created a new “art form” with the non-fiction novel. “Like the newspaper approach,” he wrote, “the poverty of Capote’s ‘new’ art form is appalling, the shallowness stupefying…. A work of art should, presumably, continue to shape our easy acceptance of the world, make us see in new ways, create new metaphors with which to view the world; new art should go beyond engineered reality.”