Purdy, James (Amos) 1923-
Purdy, James (Amos) 1923-
PURDY, James (Amos) 1923-
Born July 17 (one source says July 14), 1923, in (one source says near) Fremont, OH; son of William and Vera Purdy. Education: Attended University of Chicago and University of Puebla, Mexico.
Home—236 Henry St., Brooklyn, NY 11201.
Writer. Lawrence College (now University), Appleton, WI, faculty member, 1949-53; full-time writer, 1953—. University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK, visiting professor, 1977; worked as an interpreter in Latin America, France, and Spain; United States Information Agency lecturer in Europe, 1982.
National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature, 1958; Guggenheim fellow, 1958, 1962; Ford Foundation grant, 1961; On Glory's Course nominated for PEN-Faulkner Award, 1985; received Rockefeller Foundation grant; received Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993.
63: Dream Palace (also see below), William-Frederick (New York, NY), 1956.
Malcolm (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1959.
The Nephew (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1961.
Cabot Wright Begins, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1964.
Eustace Chisholm and the Works, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1967.
Jeremy's Version, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970.
I Am Elijah Thrush, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972.
The House of the Solitary Maggot, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974.
Color of Darkness [and] Malcolm (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974.
In a Shallow Grave, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1976.
Narrow Rooms, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1978.
Dream Palaces: Three Novels (contains Malcolm, The Nephew, and 63: Dream Palace), Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
Mourners Below, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
On Glory's Course, Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
In the Hollow of His Hand, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1986.
Candles of Your Eyes, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
Garments the Living Wear, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 1989.
Out with the Stars, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 1992.
Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with James Ruppert) Nothing but the Truth: An Anthology of Native American Literature, Prentice Hall (Upper Saddle River, NJ), 2000.
Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories (also see below), William-Frederick (New York, NY), 1956.
63: Dream Palace: A Novella and Nine Stories (contains 63: Dream Palace and Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories,) Gollancz (London, England), 1957.
Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella (contains 63: Dream Palace, Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories, and two stories), New Directions (New York, NY), 1957.
Children Is All (stories and plays), New Directions (New York, NY), 1962.
An Oyster Is a Wealthy Beast (a story and poems), Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1967.
Mr. Evening: A Story and Nine Poems, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1968.
On the Rebound: A Story and Nine Poems, Black Sparrow Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1970.
A Day after the Fair: A Collection of Plays and Stories, Note of Hand (New York, NY), 1977.
The Candles of Your Eyes, and Thirteen Other Stories, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (New York, NY), 1987.
63: Dream Palace: Selected Stories, 1956-1987, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 1991.
The Running Sun, Paul Waner Press, 1971.
Sunshine Is an Only Child, Aloe Editions (New York, NY), 1973.
Lessons and Complaints, Nadja (New York, NY), 1978.
Sleep Tight, Nadja (New York, NY), 1979.
The Brooklyn Branding Parlors, Contact/II (New York, NY), 1985.
Collected Poems, Athenaeum-Polak Van Gennep (Amsterdam, Germany), 1990.
Also author of I Will Arrest the Bird That Has No Light, 1978, Don't Let the Snow Fall, 1985, and Are You in the Winter Tree?, 1987.
Cracks, produced in New York, NY, 1963.
Wedding Finger, New Directions (New York, NY), 1974.
Two Plays (contains A Day at the Fair and True), New London Press (Dallas, TX), 1979.
Scrap of Paper [and] The Berrypicker, Sylvester & Orphanos (Los Angeles, CA), 1981.
Proud Flesh, Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1981.
Also author of Mr. Cough and the Phantom Sex, 1960, Ruthanna Elder, 1989, In the Night of Time and Four Other Plays, 1992, Foment, 1994, Brice, 1994, and Where Quentin Goes, 1994.
Also author of Eventide and Other Stories (recordings), Spoken Arts, 1968; 63: Dream Palace (recording), Spoken Arts, 1969; Kitty Blue (fairy tale), 1993, and Dawn (novel), 1985. Contributor to numerous books, including New Directions in Prose and Poetry 21, edited by James Laughlin, New Directions, 1969. Contributor to magazines, including Mademoiselle, New Yorker, and Commentary.
Malcolm was adapted as a play by Edward Albee and published by Dramatists Play Service in 1966; some of Purdy's poems have been set to music by Richard Hundley and Robert Helps; the story "Sleep Tight" was filmed by Inquiring Systems, Inc.; In a Shallow Grave was adapted and filmed by Kenneth Bowser in 1988; 63: Dream Palace was made into an opera by Hans-Jurgen von Bose, published by Ars Viva Verlag (Mainz, France), 1989.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
All That Glitters, a novel; Dangerous Moonlight, a play.
After his short stories were rejected by every magazine to which he submitted them, James Purdy published his first two books with a subsidy publisher in 1956. He sent copies of these subsidy books—the novel 63: Dream Palace and the collection Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories—to a number of prominent literary figures, hoping to create some interest in his writing. The resulting interest was far more than he had expected. Dame Edith Sitwell, the English poet, wrote back to Purdy, calling several of his short stories "superb: nothing short of masterpieces" and his novel "a masterpiece from every point of view." Because of her admiration for Purdy's work, Sitwell spoke to the publishing firm of Gollancz and persuaded them to issue a British edition of Purdy's books. The Gollancz edition, combining both of his subsidy books into a single volume entitled 63: Dream Palace: A Novella and Nine Stories, was well reviewed in England and launched Purdy's literary career. The same material, plus two additional stories, was published in America as Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella in 1957.
Purdy first made his reputation, a Times Literary Supplement reviewer explained, because he wrote "in a style, a tone, that was as direct and natural as someone talking … and through eyes that belonged exclusively to him. You may dislike a writer's vision, but if he has one that is unique, you must admit his talent: it is the only sure sign of originality." Purdy's unique vision has been expressed in a variety of ways. As Henry Chupack emphasized in his book James Purdy, he has "created many worlds; and each with its own discernible and distinct features." This variety makes Purdy a difficult writer to categorize. Stephen D. Adams wrote in his book James Purdy that his "originality and extraordinary talents cannot be neatly inventoried.… To portray him as the author of an eccentric body of fiction, as a part of some movement or fashionable literary trend, or as a novelist who essentially mocks the capacities of art, is to deny the complexities of his individual voice."
A continuing concern with the crippling effects of the American family on its children marks all of Purdy's work. His early books portray orphans or runaways who are exploited or abused by older characters, while his more recent novels examine the destructive relationships between family members. The failure of love is behind the failure of the family in Purdy's work, Frank Baldanza wrote in the Centennial Review, resulting in children "who, as adults, pass on the anguished, lonely legacy to their own offspring.… Purdy's vision is somber and frightening." This vision is defined by Chupack as being the essence of postwar America. Chupack wrote: "Behind [postwar America's] facade of great material wealth lay a vast spiritual wasteland of loveless lives and hellish marriages; from such barren marriages came children who, as a rule, were treated cruelly by their parents and by other adults; rape and homosexuality were engaged in by those who, denied love in their own lives, sought it in antisocial actions; and most ironic of all, the quest for wealth and the possession of it did not result in happiness."
Purdy distances himself from his fictional material while still involving his readers emotionally with his characters. He relates often violent or horrifying events in a flat, ironic prose to create a black comedy that transcends its melancholic subject matter. Writing in the Village Voice, Debra Rae Cohen explained that Purdy's narrative voice "cleaves to the rhythms proper to the world it creates, but keeps you aware, by its very pervasiveness, of the bemused, sardonic intelligence behind it all.… In the black humor of his artificial America, he seems sometimes as distanced as a puppeteer."
Critical reaction to Purdy's work has ranged from high praise from such writers as Gore Vidal, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, and John Cowper Powys to outright dismissal by other observers. A writer for the Times Literary Supplement admitted that "there has always been a good deal of critical confusion about [Purdy]. As a writer, he has existed at extremes of praise and disparagement." Jerome Charyn also remarked on this critical polarity. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Charyn explained that Purdy "exists in some strange limbo between adoration and neglect," although Charyn judged him to be "one of the very best writers we have." The English writer Francis King, in an article for the Spectator, noted the lack of critical acceptance Purdy has received. "Although," King wrote, "he strikes me as a writer of far greater originality and power than [Saul] Bellow, [Philip] Roth, or [John] Updike, James Purdy has only rarely received his due in his native America." Critical reaction in Europe has generally been kinder to Purdy, particularly in France, England, and Italy.
Purdy once told CA that his literary stature has been determined by the existing literary establishment, which is unsympathetic to his kind of writing. Purdy explained: "Reviewing in America is in a very bad state owing to the fact that there are no serious book reviews, and reputations are made in America by political groups backed by money and power brokers who care nothing for original and distinguished writing, but are bent on forwarding the names of writers who are politically respectable. There are also almost no magazines today which will print original and distinguished fiction unless the author is a member of the 'New York literary establishment.' Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability. The worse the author, the more he is known."
Having what Warren French and Donald Pease in the Dictionary of Literary Biography called a "haunting, nightmarish quality," Purdy's first novel, 63: Dream Palace, tells of two orphaned brothers who leave West Virginia to live in Chicago. Living in a big city for the first time, Fenton and Claire unknowingly associate with people who wish to exploit them. In his attempts to support the sickly Claire, Fenton moves from theft to prostitution to drugs, ultimately strangling Claire while under the influence of drugs.
The book was inspired by Purdy's own youth. "I left home at an early age and went to Chicago. It was the first big city I had ever known, and I was unprepared for its overwhelming confusion," Purdy wrote in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. But 63: Dream Palace is "biography … transformed into a supreme fiction that sails close-hauled in one direction to out-and-out naturalism, and in the other to surrealistic fable," as Robert K. Morris wrote in the Nation. Morris concluded by describing the novel as "at once a marvelous and depressing tale, as lucid and total an allegory of despair as one could imagine."
Commonweal reviewer Anthony Bailey described the short stories of Purdy's other early book, Don't Call Me by My Right Name, as "a novel departure in the craft of the short story." Bailey found that Purdy's achievement in these stories makes "the work of many highly skilled writers seem extremely dependent on literary convention and, in doing so, [Purdy] has made fresh contact with moral reality." Similarly, Nation reviewer William Bittner thought Purdy's work "seems to be more what the short story might have been had it developed continuously from [Edgar Allan] Poe, [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, and [Herman] Melville. Purdy, at any rate, is that rare bird in this age of reportorial fiction, a writer who creates."
The critical acclaim for Purdy's work continued with the release of the novel Malcolm in 1959. The book tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who is abandoned at a posh hotel by his father. Making the acquaintance of an astrologer, Mr. Cox, Malcolm is given a list of addresses of people he should visit and the advice, "Give yourself up to things." The people Malcolm visits, Donald Cook wrote in the New Republic, try "to use him and to possess him." "The themes of 63: Dream Palace," Jean E. Kennard explained in Number and Nightmare: Forms of Fantasy in Contemporary Fiction, "are more fully developed in … Malcolm. Using the picaresque novel pattern of a young man setting out to learn about life through a series of adventures, Purdy ironically tells the story of a young man who is used by everyone he meets and learns nothing." Though Cook admitted "there is a great deal of depravity and perversity" in the novel, he believed that Purdy has the "ability to touch upon these things with gentleness and wit, and thereby to provide new illuminations."
Malcolm is eventually pressured into marriage with a nymphomaniac nightclub singer and dies, as Purdy writes in the novel, of "acute alcoholism and sexual hyperaesthesia." Billed as a comic novel by its publisher, Malcolm evokes laughter that "sounds a little like the beginning of a death rattle," R. W. B. Lewis wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review. Lewis placed Malcolm in the "fine old comic picaresque tradition" and called Purdy "a writer of exceptional talent, who must be acknowledged in the company say, of Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison." Chicago Review critic Paul Herr also praised the novel, stating, "With the publication of Malcolm, James Purdy has left no doubt that he is a writer of integrity with a voice of his own."
Kennard argued that Malcolm is primarily concerned with "the failure of communication." This failure is dramatized by the contradictory language of Purdy's characters and the self-negating scenes between them. "Characters reply to each other in a series of nonsequitors," Kennard reported. "Just as individual sentences cancel each other out, so too the action of the novel progressively unmakes itself. All relationships disintegrate.… Malcolm is eventually found drifting aimlessly from one place to another." Tony Tanner, writing in City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970, also saw this process of dissolution in Malcolm. "In the world in which … Malcolm finds himself," Tanner wrote, "sense is continually dissolving in contradictions. There is nothing stable enough or meaningful enough around him to enable him properly speaking to 'begin'.…He passes through changing scenes but, instead of thickening into identity and consolidating a real self, his life is really a long fading."
In an article for Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Charles Stetler found this dissolution—"the disturbing themes of loneliness and lack of identity in the bizarre nightmare of modern existence," as he called it—the subject matter of what is essentially a parody. "Without question," Stetler wrote, "Malcolm is a story of a young man confronting adulthood, for initiation is its central theme. [But Purdy] has offered us a sport on that type, using the genre to satirize it, with a wry approach to form as well as content. Viewed this way, the satire of an already cheerless book is deepened, and the blackness of its humor becomes more pervasive, more complete, and more grim." This parody ultimately extends to the death of Malcolm at book's end. There is some doubt surrounding Malcolm's death, with the coroner and undertaker both claiming there was no body in Malcolm's coffin. "Thus," Stetler noted, "if nothing proves that Malcolm is dead, nothing, likewise, guarantees that Malcolm ever lived, in any sense of the word. Instead of the novel being an allegory of a young everyman, it is more an allegory of no man—the way Purdy sees modern man."
In The Nephew, Purdy continues to write of characters who have no fixed identity. This time, though, his primary character never appears in the novel. Cliff Mason, missing in action in the Korean War, becomes the subject of a memorial book being compiled by his Aunt Alma, who raised him after his parents died. Her research into Cliff's life ends inconclusively. As Martin Tucker wrote in Commonweal, "she discovers she knows almost nothing about the only person she has loved." But her search for Cliff reveals much about the secret sorrows and fears of her neighbors and friends in the small town in which she lives, and what little new she does discover about Cliff strongly suggests that he was a homosexual. Her search, French and Pease commented, "results not in recovering the boy, but in exposing the banal hidden secrets of her neighbors and leading them to a new apprehension of each other." As in Malcolm, where a dissolution takes place in the narrative, "the action of [The Nephew] is a movement towards the void.…The reader is taken towards nothing as each piece of information gleaned contradicts what has gone before," Kennard wrote.
Several observers have viewed The Nephew and its story of a search for a dead relative as merely a structure in which Purdy explores small town life, satirizing the conventions of contemporary America. New Republic contributor Herbert Gold felt that "the plot is a mere excuse for a curious parody of a Norman Rockwell illustration or an Edgar Lee Masters poem," while French and Pease pointed out that the town of Rainbow Center in which Alma lives is "a half-American-gothic, half-Ozlike community." "Purdy's aim," Curtis Harnack explained in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, "is leveled at America's values and beliefs, at contemporary society itself."
This literary assault utilizes a variety of writing styles and genres, all of which Purdy employs with great skill. "From humor to pathos, from farce to caricature or to straight narrative," William Peden wrote in the Saturday Review, "Mr. Purdy is in constant control of his material.… If any doubts exist concerning Mr. Purdy's unique abilities, this slender, unpretentious, thoroughly admirable novel should dispel them." Calling The Nephew "a small work of authentic fictional art," Lewis claimed that Purdy "has demonstrated a range and variety in his steadily strengthening talent—one of the most decisive literary talents to have appeared since the last war—to which one happily sees no obvious bounds."
With his next two novels, Cabot Wright Begins and Eustace Chisholm and the Works, Purdy met with strong opposition from what he calls, in his Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (CAAS) article, the "essentially stuffy New York establishment." Cabot Wright Begins concerns a Wall Street heir who becomes a rapist. After he is captured and imprisoned, Cabot Wright decides to compose his memoirs, hiring a woman writer to help him. But the woman's experiences with the publishing world, which is not interested in the truth of Wright's situation but with a commercial version of it, force her to abandon the project. A third of the novel's length deals with the problems involved in writing Cabot's biography and the reaction the manuscript receives. It is this satirical look at the publishing world, what French and Pease call "Purdy's frontal assault on what he regards as a decadent literary establishment and the vulgarities of a culture shaped by advertising," that inspired, some critics felt, the negative reaction to the novel. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement revealed, for example, that one of the novel's characters, a critic named Doyley Pepscout, was based on an actual New York critic. Or so the critic, who attacked the book, believed.
Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time that "Purdy is a terrible writer, and worse than that, he is a boring writer." Theodore Solotaroff, in his Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, found that "the first two-thirds or so of Cabot Wright Begins is a cool, mordant, and deadly accurate satire on American values, as good as anything we have had since the work of Nathanael West.…But having sprung his indignation, Purdy eventually allows it to get out of hand. Losing the objectivity of his art, he continues to pour it on and pour it on."
But Tanner's review maintained that Cabot Wright Begins "gathers together all the themes opened up or touched on in Purdy's earlier work and explores them with a subtlety and humour and power which makes this, to my mind, not only Purdy's most profound novel but one of the most important American novels since the war." The Times Literary Supplement critic described Cabot Wright Begins as "not only the most savage of satires on the American way of life … [but] also an extremely funny book."
Purdy's next novel, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, was again met with derision from "the anaesthetic, hypocritical, preppy, and stagnant New York literary establishment," as Purdy wrote in his CAAS article. It was the book's sympathetic portrayal of homosexual love that Purdy believes caused the furor. "Such love," he writes in the CAAS article, "unless treated clinically or as a documentary cannot be tolerated by the New York literary Powers-That-Be." One negative review was by Nelson Algren who, in Critic, found little merit in Eustace Chisolm and the Works. He called it a "fifth-rate avant-garde soap opera" and wrote that "what makes the book such a deadly bore, what makes the reader's mind boggle, is that the author is unaware of anything preposterous about men who believe so firmly in both prayer and faggotry that they can go from sex to penitence without getting off their knees."
Revolving around Eustace Chisholm, a bisexual would-be poet, the novel tells of several love relationships, including that between Eustace and his wife, Carla, between Daniel Haws and Amos Ratcliffe, and between Maureen O'Dell and Daniel Haws. "Homosexuals comprise most of the characters in Eustace Chisholm and the Works," Robert K. Morris wrote in the Nation, "but homosexuality is not really the subject.…The world of the pervert … has been blown up to accommodate the larger themes of alienation, isolation and lovelessness." Similarly, Rachel Trickett of the Yale Review called Eustace Chisholm and the Works an "appalling fable of the impossibility of love, with the violent depiction of the frustration and martyrdom of a romantic homosexual passion, and its brutally comic presentation of heterosexual promiscuity and abortion."
Several critics see the novel's early pages as weaker than its conclusion. Wilfred Sheed of the New York Times Book Review, for example, found "the first part of this story [to be] told on a note of shrill facetiousness.…But slowly, and one might guess, diffidently, the book becomes a little more serious.…The whole last section is a purple feast of sadomasochism. It is also a risky and serious piece of writing, which waives the extenuations of humor, and is possibly the best writing Purdy has ever done." Morris, too, saw a change in the narrative during the course of the novel. "What begins as the whimpering and whining of unrequited lovers moves toward a crescendo of suffering," Morris wrote, "and what starts as a vague, troubled dream becomes an excursion in nightmare."
But French, writing in his Season of Promise, praised Eustace Chisholm and the Works in its entirety. After reading Purdy's earlier fiction, he explained, "I was scarcely prepared for the violently compressed power, the exhausting vehemence, the almost superhuman exorcism of the wanton evil that destroys many innocents that set Purdy's new effort far apart from the whining and the cocktail chatter that often passes for serious fiction. I was staggered by Purdy's tale." Trickett concluded that the novel "is conceived and executed with the most elaborate artistry.…The book has brilliance and originality."
After writing Eustace Chisholm and the Works, Purdy turned to stories inspired by the tales he heard as a child from his grandmother and great-grandmother. These stories are set in rural Ohio and concern the farmers and small-town inhabitants of the region. In Jeremy's Version, The House of the Solitary Maggot, Mourners Below, and On Glory's Course, Purdy transforms his ancestors' remembrances into fiction. This change in subject matter, French and Pease remarked, is characterized by "less spectacular yet even more frightening tales of the South and Midwest, employing regional vernaculars to present intensive, brooding, in-depth studies of small groups of pathetic figures spotlighted against uncluttered pastoral settings."
Jeremy's Version is set in the small Ohio town of Boutflour and examines the relationships that bind together the Fergus family. "The action is violent, gothic, but mostly kept in the family," a Times Literary Supplement reviewer commented. Wilfred Fergus is an irresponsible father; his wife, Elvira, raises their three sons on her own; and the sons are trying to work out their own lives in the stifling atmosphere of their rural community. Though Purdy's subject matter has changed, there is much similarity between this novel and previous ones. As in his previous novels, Purdy remains concerned with the fate of young people abused and exploited by their elders. And as in The Nephew and earlier works, he uses a memoirist to relate his story. This time it is a fifteen-year-old boy who is writing a novel based on the remembrances of an older character and on a diary written by a third character.
New York Times Book Review critic Guy Davenport saw Purdy as working in a familiar genre, the American gothic, but using it to express his own vision. "It is a novel which, in a sense, has been written many times before; practically every scene is wonderfully nostalgic rather than new," wrote Davenport. "This effect is deliberate and masterfully exploited." The gothic elements in the novel include, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer stated, "two possible rapes, lost fortunes, drink, fights, 'unspoken of' crimes, lurid revelations about small-town sex, scandals, climactic effects, a son's attempt to shoot his mother and a canvas of characters drawn, mostly, in blood." Through these gothic elements, America reviewer J. R. Lindroth wrote, Purdy "succeeds in evoking the appalling difficulties involved in raising a family in a small town. Financial pressures, sibling rivalries, Oedipal conflicts, dissipate the illusion of a Utopian existence in rural America." Davenport believed Purdy explores the stifling effects of family life in Jeremy's Version. Purdy shows that "character is a role written for us by our families; only in loneliness and desperation do we dare leave the stage," Davenport wrote. "All the characters … are trying to wake up and live.… their tragedy is that they do not know what this means, and remain as bewildered as children on a dull afternoon who want something, but do not know what they want."
The House of the Solitary Maggot is set in Prince's Crossing, not far from Boutflour, the setting of Jeremy's Version. Prince's Crossing is a place, Purdy explains in the novel, no longer on the maps because it is now too small to constitute a village. It is, wrote New Republic contributor Irving Malin, "a ghostland … filled with people unable to accept the facts of daily life, obsessed by bright visions of glory, fame and love. They are sleepwalkers." The novel is narrated by Eneas Harmond, a hermit who listens to Lady Byethewaite speak into a tape recorder about the history of her family. The tape recording is meant for Lady Byethewaite's great-great-nephew. This narration combines Harmond's story with that of Lady Byethewaite and joins "the voices of past and present" as well, Malin stated. The ruin eventually brought upon Byethewaite's three sons—fathered by a Mr. Skegg, a local magnate (pronounced "maggot" by the locals)—is caused by "the irresponsibility of the presumed parents and the inability of the sons to cope with their own emotions," French and Pease wrote.
Several reviewers found that Purdy's prose transcends the tragedy and squalor of his story. "It has a strange sense of poetry—the poetry of the seedy, the rundown, the decayed and corrupt," wrote Glasgow Herald critic Douglas Dunn. "The achievement of the book—and I think it is very considerable—is that Purdy's prose and phrase-making elevate the emotional squalor of his story and its characters to a level of effect that is hauntingly beautiful and pure." Calling The House of the Solitary Maggot a "mythic and disturbing novel," Malin believed that Purdy transcends his material by using its familiar elements while simultaneously rejecting them. "Purdy," Malin stated, "writes a conventional novel but, too shrewd to simply imitate past masters, gives us distinctive, nightmarish patterns, as if … he accepts and rebels against 'traditional' images."
Mourners Below continues Purdy's interest in Midwestern settings, being set in a nameless location Purdy referred to only as "our town." The novel centers on the Bledsoe family: Eugene Bledsoe, his son Duane, and Duane's two half-brothers, Douglas and Justin, recently killed in an unspecified war. Duane is visited by the ghosts of his brothers and comes to feel that Justin, whom he closely resembles, is urging him to carry out his wishes. Before joining the army, Justin had an affair with the wealthy Estelle Dumont, and now he wants Duane to rekindle this relationship for him. Duane is first pushed into attending a masquerade at Estelle's home and then, when the party is over, into seducing her. After leaving Estelle the next morning, Duane is set upon by two ruffians who, thinking they are attacking Justin, rape him. "The story that Mr. Purdy is telling," observed King, "is in the nature of a macabre fairy-tale or parable." Similarly, Times Literary Supplement critic T. O. Treadwell remarked that "the meaning of Mourners Below lies on the symbolic, even allegorical level." Chicago Tribune Book World contributor Lyle Rexer called Mourners Below "a rural fairy tale, whose fantastic events conceal a psychomythic crisis, in this case the reconciliation of innocence and temporality."
Although there is a mythic level to the novel, King explained that it is "otherwise realistic in its depiction of the life of the small Mid-West town in which all these bizarre, supernatural happenings take place." Julia M. Klein of the New Republic believed that Purdy creates "a world where the supernatural merges with the real, [and he] illuminates a reality whose core, if not its contours, matches our own." Because the novel ends with Duane raising the child he has fathered with Estelle, Cohen saw a final twist in the story from the fantastic to the realistic. "Purdy winds up the novel," Cohen wrote, "with a deft change of scale; turning, by implication, the small end of the telescope on his characters, he transforms the grotesque and outlandish back into the mundane."
This combination of the real and fantastic parallels Purdy's blending of the comic and bleak as well. "While the grief of Mourners Below is very real indeed," wrote American Book Review critic Gary Krist, "it is touched by an inimitable quality of absurdity and deadpan excess. The morbid background of silence and death is only an instrument of Purdy's essentially comic vision." This view was shared by Klein, who defined the first third of the novel as "a skillful psychological portrait" of Duane's father and the rest of the book as "something wilder and more comic—and finally more terrible."
Krist concluded that Mourners Below is "one of [Purdy's] best novels." Klein believed that the novel "recapitulates many of Purdy's concerns—with small-town families in crisis, the explosiveness of contained emotion, the marriage between the dead and the living. Purdy sees to the heart of relations between the sexes.…He celebrates the bonds between brothers, between father and son, even as he underlines the near impossibility of intimacy."
On Glory's Course, nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985, is set in the Midwestern town of Fonthill during the 1930s. It is a "sexually repressed town," as Washington Post writer Michael Dirda explained, in which Adele Bevington is an elegant and wealthy woman with a "sinful" past. Some thirty years earlier, Adele was forced to give up for adoption her illegitimate son. She has been searching for him ever since, convinced that he is alive and well and still living somewhere in Fonthill.
Marked by a style that attempts to capture the speaking rhythms of the period, On Glory's Course met with criticism from several reviewers who felt the attempt fails. Robert J. Seidman of the New York Times Book Review, for example, thought the "idiom so ponderous" that Purdy's characters "have trouble speaking their lines." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Roz Kaveney called the dialogue "wearisomely convoluted and stilted." But Los Angeles Times writer Carolyn See noted that the sometimes portentous language is appropriate to the novel's time period. While she allowed that at first a reader may believe he is "being made part of an experiment with words," See explained that a more flamboyant speech was common at the time: They "didn't just gossip about you, they resorted to calumny. And people didn't scold or even chide, they were apt to repeat an objuration."
Despite his objections to the novel, Seidman wrote that "Adele, the embattled town rebel, has courage and wit, even stature" and "Purdy does mount a few hilarious comic scenes." Kaveney, too, found some merit in On Glory's Course. "The novel," she wrote, "is partly redeemed by the way Purdy keeps the reader turning pages." See wrote that she "recognized a couple of those ironing-board tirades [found in the novel]; others who do may love this book."
Purdy once again combined realism with the fantastic in Garments the Living Wear, a tale of New York City's homosexual underworld in the age of AIDS. New York Times Book Review critic Bertha Harris reported that in this novel, "the wit and sauce of a James Purdy drawing room extravaganza collide with the supernatural hyperbole of one of his trademark riffs on the Southern gospel tradition." The story of Garments revolves around handsome, extremely desirable Jared Wakeman and his benefactor, the aging drag queen Peg Sawyer. Jared and Peg's social circle is being decimated by AIDS, which is referred to by the characters in the book as "the Pest." Gay theater, a primary concern for both Jared and Peg, is also suffering—both from the loss of its members to the Pest and from lack of funds. Edward Hennings, a wealthy, aging homosexual, appears on the scene to seduce and support Jared. As the story proceeds, it becomes apparent that the mysterious Hennings is able to work miracles. He cures the dying and, in so doing, brings salvation to the damned city of New York; but in the end, he leaves and is later reported to have died in the Caribbean. Those whose lives he touched in New York are grief-stricken by this news, yet, as Harris observed, "they are classic fin de siecle characters who will continue to get by in classic fin de siecle fashion: on wit and nerve and opportunism." A Review of Contemporary Fiction writer called Garments the Living Wear "dramatic, illusory, hallucinatory" and called Purdy one of "the most interesting novelists we have."
Purdy's 1993 novel Out with the Stars also delves into the world of New York City's gay artists and musicians; it is set in 1965, however, before AIDS overshadowed that community, and the characters are, for the most part, hiding their homosexuality from the straight world. The plot centers on a composer who finds a libretto describing the stormy marriage of a closet homosexual, but the convoluted story line involves many liaisons and strange happenings. A contributor to the Review of Contemporary Fiction rated the book as one of Purdy's best, one that "offers us a cruel and comic meditation on the meaning of fame" and is "also concerned with the relationship of art to spiritual longing." Spectator reviewer Caroline Moore felt that Out with the Stars is "a highly-coloured, utterly unbelievable and enjoyable book, which I hesitate to recommend to you."
Times Literary Supplement reviewer Firdaus Kanga wrote that "Purdy has certainly never been funnier, his writing never more self-assured"; yet the critic went on to state that "his book comes to us as one without meaning.… He has made his characters into play things without fitting them into a grand construct." Boston Globe writer Richard Dyer labeled the book "a curious artifact … some of its facets dazzling, polished and reflective, some of them curiously scratched and dull of surface." He praised Purdy's "extraordinary, airy and effortless elegance of style," saying that the work is "suffused with a gay sensibility. There is almost no explicit sexual detail, yet the book is far sexier than the lewdest efforts of younger writers."
Even as he approached the age of eighty, Purdy continued to be unafraid "to experiment or to take risks," stated Brian Evenson in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Purdy's novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, published in 1999, shows the writer's formidable powers. Purdy "creates a narrative voice decidedly different from that found in his other fiction, explores the relation of life to art, and manages to interweave a contemporary story with the myth of Persephone," reported Evenson. The novel takes a look at Gertrude Abercrombie, an artist based in Illinois. It is narrated by her mother, Carrie, who is struggling to make some sense out of her daughter's life after Gertrude dies. Although Carrie is up in years, the story serves as her coming-of-age tale as well. A well-to-do resident of Chicago's North Shore, she was perplexed by her daughter's promiscuous, hedonistic lifestyle; Gertrude, for her part, was always contemptuous of her mother's sheltered life. Mourning her child, Carrie sets out to unravel Gertrude's many secrets, by looking through her journals, her possessions, and talking with her friends and lovers. Although she is nearly overwhelmed by some of what she discovers, she ultimately learns a great deal about Gertrude and herself. Evenson pointed to the mastery Purdy displayed in his writing technique: "Remarkably quiet at first, Purdy's Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue soon builds to a powerful pitch. A first-rate read, it reveals that Purdy is an artist who remains vital, impressive, and necessary." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book "idiosyncratic and tantalizingly elusive," and advised "the carefully wrought pages of this novella will stimulate the patient reader."
Discussing Purdy and Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue in the Advocate, Robert Plunket commented on the freshness of the author's work. "Younger gay readers are discovering Purdy, and with good reason. His novels are timeless; even those set in an America that has long since disappeared are as relevant to the homosexual experience as anything being written today," wrote Plunket. And yet, he quoted Purdy as saying: "I don't think of myself exactly as a gay writer because I write about everything.…But when I dealt with [homosexuality] as one of my subjects, you would have thought I was a criminal." Speaking philosophically of the rejection he has often encountered during the course of his writing life, he added: "Writing is like being a boxer. If you don't want to get knocked down, you shouldn't be in the game."
Evaluations of Purdy's overall achievement often place him among the finest of American writers. The late Edith Sitwell wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, "James Purdy will come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language." Purdy, Chapuck believed, "is a writer of marvelous power, who has made us think deeply and seriously about the human condition." Similarly, New York Arts Journal contributor Paul Bresnick wrote: "Purdy has the uncanny ability to compel us to experience emotional states we are thoroughly unfamiliar with. He alerts us to impulses we thought we had successfully murdered or buried. He sensitizes us to new (or rather, submerged) areas of our souls." Charyn called Purdy "one of the most uncompromising of American novelists," while King felt "that a small, perpetually radioactive particle of genius irradiates the mass of the work he has produced over the years." Purdy has been especially admired by other writers, including Marianne Moore, Paul Bowles, William Carlos Williams, Edward Albee, and Angus Wilson. His books have been translated into twenty-two languages, his poems have been set to music, and in 1975, the Modern Language Association of America devoted an entire seminar to Purdy's work.
Still, Purdy is little known by the American public. As he once told CA: "This is an age of exhibitionists, not souls. The press and the public primarily recognize only writers who give them 'doctored' current events as truth. For me, the only 'engagement' or cause a 'called' writer can have (as opposed to a public writer) is his own vision and work. It is an irrevocable decision: he can march only in his own parade."
This approach has gained Purdy a wider readership abroad than in his native America. Speaking of a tour he made for the United States Information Agency in 1982 to Israel, Finland, and Germany, Purdy recalled in CAAS the welcome he received: "My reception in these countries was enthusiastic beyond my expectations, and it was brought home to me again that my stories reach some deep note in readers who are receptive and open."
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