Morris Renek, a Novelist of Gift and Determination, Dies at 88
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published: May 25, 2013
Morris Renek, a critically admired New York novelist who wrote comic tales about historical criminals and modern urban life but never achieved the commercial success many thought he deserved, died on May 10 in Manhattan. He was 88.
He died after suffering cardiac arrest while walking in the Flatiron district, his wife, the former Ethel Leventhal, said. He lived in Pound Ridge, N.Y.
Mr. Renek’s novels, published between the 1960s and ’80s, conveyed social messages in hard-boiled prose. His characters were often motivated by powerful ambition or desperation to escape society’s constraints.
The critic John Leonard, writing in The New York Times, called Mr. Renek’s second novel, “Siam Miami” (1969), “comic, profound and elegantly written.” The book described a beautiful pop singer’s brushes with the sleazy side of show business on the path to stardom.
Mr. Renek’s third novel, “Heck” (1971), was about a nobody who decides to rob a bank in his old Brooklyn neighborhood, Williamsburg, so that he can have a sense of accomplishment.
“His enthusiasm is boundless, his imagination unpredictable and diverting,” the novelist John Deck wrote in The New York Times Book Review. “There is a wealth of talent here that is perhaps spent too lavishly. That it is a real and original talent there can be no doubt.”
Though Mr. Renek’s books had only limited commercial success, he refused to compromise his writing for more gainful employment; he quit a lucrative job writing for CBS News to devote more time to his novels.
In his book “Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs,” the novelist and critic Richard Elman called Mr. Renek “the single most dedicated novelist I ever encountered.”
“He was respected but not easily published, admired but impoverished,” Mr. Elman wrote. “His works are not sufficiently appreciated; he’s a serious popular novelist who lacks a popular audience.”
Mr. Elman said he had helped Mr. Renek find jobs writing for The New Republic and other publications.
Mr. Renek’s last two published books reached back in time. “Las Vegas Strip” (1975) was a fictionalized account of Bugsy Siegel’s founding of the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas in the 1940s. “Bread and Circus” (1987) told of Boss Tweed’s corrupt machinations in New York City.
“He wrote of hard-edged lives,” Mr. Elman wrote. “Like Saul Bellow’s people, his characters were great knowers, but they were kept away from intellectual and academic pursuits.”