NEW YORK — Sol Yurick — a writer whose best-known work, the 1965 novel ‘‘The Warriors,’’ recast an ancient Greek battle as a tale of warring New York street gangs and earned a cult following in print, on film and eventually in a video game — died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 87.
The cause was complications of lung cancer, said his daughter, Susanna.
Before ‘‘The Warriors’’ was published, Mr. Yurick had worked for many years as an investigator for the New York City Department of Welfare. He had grown up poor in the Bronx, the son of Communist activists who struggled to survive the Depression but believed their politics would ultimately rule the world. The people he served at the welfare department struck him as very different. They, too, were impoverished, but they seemed not to believe that they could change things through politics.
‘‘Some of the children of these families were what was then called juvenile delinquents,’’ Mr. Yurick wrote in the 2003 edition of ‘‘The Warriors.’’ “Many of them belonged to fighting gangs. Some of these gangs numbered in the hundreds; they were veritable armies. This social phenomenon was viewed, on the one hand, as the invasion of the barbarians, only this time they came from the inside rather than from the outside.’’
Mr. Yurick had read widely in his youth, absorbing Proust, Camus, and classics retold in comic-book form. He was 40 and a determined leftist when he completed ‘‘The Warriors,’’ his first published novel, in which a New York gang flees the Bronx to its home turf in Brooklyn, often by subway, after a night (the Fourth of July) of unexpected conflict involving a failed effort at pan-gang unity. Along the way there is a rape and the casual killing of a bystander.
He based the story on ‘‘Anabasis,’’ written by the Greek soldier Xenophon, who helped lead the retreat of 10,000 Greek soldiers after their failed conquest of Persia around 400 B.C.
Mr. Yurick published several more novels, including ‘‘Fertig’’ and ‘‘The Bag,’’ both of which drew on his experiences with the welfare department in their portrayal of characters struggling at the margins of society. He also wrote short stories and nonfiction. In a review in The New York Times of his collection ‘‘Short Stories,’’ in 1972, Joyce Carol Oates said Mr. Yurick stood out for his effective use of realism, especially compared with writers whose more abstract work she found forced.
“Any modestly gifted writer can venture into ‘surrealism,’ ’’ Oates wrote. ‘‘Few indeed can handle the densities and outrageous paradoxes of ‘real’ life. The straightforward sections of ‘The Bag’ and ‘Fertig,’ and the unfantasized horrors of this collection’s realistic stories, have a power to move us, urgently and deeply, that cannot be matched by any of the author’s superficially sophisticated contemporaries.’’
Solomon Yurick was born in Manhattan. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and served in the US Army during World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from New York University and a master’s in English from Brooklyn College. In addition to his daughter, he leaves his wife of 54 years, the former Adrienne Lash, and a grandson.
Mr. Yurick wrote later that ‘‘The Warriors’’ was ‘‘not the best of my books.’’ Earlier, he had written ‘‘Fertig,’’ in which a father kills seven people connected with the hospital that he blames for his 3-year-old son’s death, and had high hopes for it, but it sat unpublished until after his first novel succeeded.
Yet he was fascinated with the way ‘‘The Warriors’’ resonated when a movie version was released in 1979.
The film, directed by Walter Hill, who went on to direct ‘‘48 Hrs.’’ and other popular movies, included several changes to make it more palatable for a mainstream audience. (Among the changes: The rape was omitted, the gangs were racially mixed, and the hero, who was black in the novel, was white in the movie.) It received mixed reviews — many critics, among them Mr. Yurick, took aim at its unnatural dialogue — but it developed a following, helped Mr. Yurick’s book return to print, and inspired popular video games for Xbox and PlayStation 2 that were released in 2005.
In the preface to the 2003 edition of ‘‘The Warriors’’ (“The Basis for the Cult Classic Film,’’ the cover says), Mr. Yurick said he wrote the book partly as a counterpoint to glamorized portrayals of gang life in popular culture, including ‘‘West Side Story.’’ He remembered Pauline Kael, the film critic for The New Yorker, calling him to ask about the plot’s high literary inspiration while she prepared a review of the film.
‘‘As I told her the tale,’’ he wrote, ‘‘I could sense that her excitement was growing; at last a hook for the intellectuals upon which to hang her review in The New Yorker. It was not only a glowing review, but she had also taken the trouble to read my book and mentioned it, glowingly.’’