The American novelist Sol Yurick, who has died aged 87, was too radical, too extreme and too violent for the respectable literary establishment of New York, yet no writer more fully embodied the city’s anguished spirit in the 1960s. His novels The Warriors (1965), Fertig (1966) and The Bag (1968) constitute a trilogy of vibrant energy, biting satire and high, though irreverent, artistic seriousness.
The Warriors, a tale of gangs and street violence, was rejected by 27 publishers before it finally appeared. With its carefully crafted parallels with Xenophon’s Anabasis, it was more literary than Hubert Selby Jr‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), but shared its gritty feel for the city’s underclass. In 1979 it was made into a stylish film by Walter Hill. Vincent Canby in the New York Times considered the film “a mish-mash of romantic cliches, moods and visual effects”.
Yurick, who thought it trashy and sentimentalised, agreed. After the New York premiere, his daughter, Susanna, said: “It’s all right, daddy, the kids will love it.” And they did. The Warriors became a cult classic, later embraced by hip-hop acts including the Wu-Tang Clan, spoofed in a Nike commercial and adapted as a PlayStation 2 game.
Hill’s movie drew upon comic-book characterisation but Yurick, who came out of the proletarian belly of New York, knew better. His parents, Sam and Flo, immigrants from eastern Europe, were communists and trade-union activists. Marx and Lenin, strikes and demonstrations, were regular topics of dinner-table conversation. His earliest political memory was, at the age of 14, the anguish he felt at the Stalin-Hitler pact. Yurick enlisted in the US army in 1944 and trained as a surgical technician. A long illness led to a medical discharge in 1945. The GI bill enabled him to attend New York University, where he studied literature. He read James Joyce with intensity and conceived (half-seriously) the Joycean idea of using the Anabasis of Xenophon as a way to tell the story of a gang battling through the city towards their home at Coney Island.
He went to work as a social investigator in the department of welfare in 1954. Life within the welfare bureaucracy led Yurick to conclude that such programmes were designed solely to control the poor. He later wrote an angry essay on welfare which he submitted to Commentary, a leading Jewish magazine with intellectual pretensions. It was repeatedly rejected by the editor, Norman Podhoretz. Yurick had committed the unforgivable sin of writing with too much passion, of violating the canons of civility and detachment. He was sure that the rejection was political.
Despite the critical success of Elia Kazan‘s harsh film On the Waterfront and the romantic ethnic ghettos of West Side Story, Yurick felt that writers were ignoring the city’s streets. He wanted to bring night-time New York, after the shoppers and men in grey-flannel suits went home to the suburbs, back to the centre of culture. While working with poor families, he encountered children who were members of street gangs. He found it impossible to talk to them directly about gang life; they would tell him only what they believed he wanted to hear. A rented panel truck gave him a way to observe them secretly. He walked the streets where the gangs ruled, and once went on foot through the subway tunnel between 96th Street and 110th Street. It was a scary experience. He wanted to show that street gangs, universally seen as a symptom of social dysfunctionality, gave to the poor a structure of loyalty and a sense of community. They were neither sick, nor bad, only poor.
Fertig, Yurick’s second novel, was a scathing commentary on the American healthcare and legal system. He spent several years doing research for the book in Kings County and Bellevue hospitals in New York, taking mental notes, as he tried to figure out the way a grieving father might take revenge upon those whose indifference led to the death of his son. Fertig was made into the film The Confession (1999), featuring Alec Baldwin and Ben Kingsley. Its feelgood ending was false to the spirit of the novel.
From the mid-1960s Yurick became increasingly involved in street protests against the war in Vietnam. As the protests accelerated into free speech confrontations with “liberal” educational establishments such as Columbia University, he worked with Students for a Democratic Society, contributing to the SDS tract Who Runs Columbia? and sharpening their strategy. Yurick’s wife, the potter Adrienne Lash, was a close associate of Ted Gold, an SDS leader who was a key figure in the radical Weather Underground organisation. Gold was one of three bombmakers killed in an explosion at 18 West 11th Street in 1970. The survivors of the explosion went into hiding. The FBI was all over the cell, and the documentation later released under the Freedom of Information Act (available with redaction on the FBI website) patiently builds a chilling portrait of the city’s middle-class terrorists in the 1960s.
Yurick’s third novel, The Bag, was soaked in the violence-fuelled spirit of that terrible year, with its mix of racism, sex, revolution, police repression and Molotov cocktails. Truman Capote thought it was the worst novel of the year. Two further novels followed, and a collection of short stories, Someone Just Like You (1973), but the rapid disintegration of the student protest movement that decade left Yurick to confront the prospect of being a novelist and not the mentor of a revolution.
He edited an anthology of previously unpublished Brooklyn writers in 1973, using material submitted in an open (and unpaid) competition organised by the public library. He worked with Bertell Ollmann on an alternative socialist boardgame to Monopoly, and began work on a Marxist detective story hopefully aiming to reveal the innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were found guilty of spying in 1951.
Books were announced and never published. Film projects – including a remake of The Warriors by Tony Scott – were abandoned. Several of his books were marked “offsite” in the New York public library catalogue. It was a kind of cultural death.
He published Behold Metatron in 1985, collecting complex and verbose essays on the emerging “Metastate”. Yurick was an occasional reviewer and signer of public letters protesting against one enormity after another. In 1987 he took an office job in Brooklyn. A venturesome publisher is needed to reissue Yurick’s complete 60s trilogy; like Selby and the New York novelist Daniel Fuchs, he saw American cities with a ferocious clarity.
He is survived by Adrienne, Susanna and a grandson.
• Sol Yurick, novelist, born 18 January 1925; died 5 January 2013
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