The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy

  • James Purdy
  • Liveright
  • 752 pp.

The late author's shorter works, compiled for the first time, reveal a soaring imagination.

James Purdy is becoming fairly well known as a writer who is not well known. He has had his enthusiasts over the years; Gore Vidal declared him “an authentic American genius.” But most reviewers have ignored him and most publishers did not find his work compelling during his lifetime (Purdy died at age 95 in 2009). Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in his work.

This huge book of stories, including two novellas and a couple of plays, does reveal a soaring imagination and occasional power. His characters are often tortured, miserable and desperate. But with rare exceptions, we never really get to know them.

Most of Purdy’s stories are dark. “Doom is what perfect love is always headed for,” says one character in “The Candles of Your Eyes.” Whenever something positive occurs, Purdy undermines it; there is no redemption. There’s murder, rape, suicide and, sometimes seemingly worse, characters who talk themselves (and others) endlessly and hopelessly into the depths of bored depression.

“63: Dream Palace” is a novella and one of Purdy’s most cited (and darkest) stories. In an austere urban setting, a young man named Fenton lives an impoverished and apparently useless life. He and his invalid young brother Claire live in an abandoned house. An apparently wealthy (but equally feckless) young man befriends Fenton, arranging to provide him with a decent suit of clothes. Plot lines crisscross. Fenton knocks out someone’s teeth. He slaps his little brother, viciously. The brother cringes.

“‘It’s all scary spooky and god damned rotten,’ says Fenton.
‘It’s rotten all right …’
‘Well, when there ain’t nothing else you got to stoop down and pick up the rotten.’”

All of these people, including Fenton’s benefactor, are pretty awful. They are depressed, fatalistic, often drunk. But unlike the unpleasant or even ugly characters in fine literature, there is no way to get close to them, so, like most of the characters in Purdy’s stories, it is hard to care about them.

Part of the problem with Purdy’s work, I think, is that he insists on telling us in some detail how his characters feel or think instead of revealing their feelings through action. This results in a flood of adverbs and crudely descriptive phrases. Characters speak “somewhat tartly,” “with glacial indifference,” “in a somewhat spiteful tone,” “in a sort of prayerful voice,” “biliously.” Characters laugh or cry wildly or hysterically (alternatively “rather hysterically”), often for no apparent reason. Points of view jump around like grasshoppers. When one character turns to another “with hatred,” or replies “in agony,” we look for some evidence of those important emotions; usually there is nothing there.

And what are we to make of “she vituperated” and yes, even “‘You’re supposed to be in Chicago,’ he ejaculated.”

There are moments of literary excellence. A reference to Fenton’s “heavy lack of interest” in his brother’s actions is nicely apt. And who could fail to admire “she took a swallow so deep that she seemed to be talking to someone in the end of the glass”?

Another bright spot is “Some of These Days.” While as depressing as the others, this story has real bite. It is told in the first person. A semi-literate man, after release from prison, searches for the “landlord” who had befriended and assisted him before his conviction. Both men are ambiguously homosexual and perhaps share a very deep love. After leaving prison, the protagonist begins a desperate search for his former friend, spending hours and then days in a porno theatre that his “lord” had frequented previously. Finally, half-starved and hallucinating, he is taken away in a straitjacket by anonymous authorities and told that is he is dying. He convinces himself that his friend, too, must be dead. Writing this down with the help of another patient in the institution where he is held, he bequeaths his story to someone named James De Salles, who may be his “landlord” and may be himself.

Purdy brings us close to this character. Abetted by the first-person voice, we are allowed to share the tragic workings of this man’s mind as, following a concussion, he forgets the name of his friend, and searches his memory in desperation for this crucial piece of information. I cared about this man. That is what I so sorely miss in the rest of Purdy’s stories.

A few of the exceptions to Purdy’s theme of darkness are whimsical. “Wedding Finger,” for example, is pure lighthearted fantasy. It is written in the form of a play and stars a cast of oddities from god-knows-where. These include Saint-Stephen, Lady Tuttle, Prince Antelope and Minnie May, Lady Tuttle’s mother. Lady Tuttle, who is really Manhattan Island, is to be married to Prince Antelope after which the Prince will drag Manhattan off from the American coast (we surmise) to some secret place in Africa. Lady Tuttle has been married 42 times before, each time a virgin, and she is tired of having her cherry popped. But the marriage takes place and Lady Tuttle announces, from the basket of a hot air balloon, upstage center, “Oh, God almighty, I am being impaled!”

Are these people from the underground (as is hinted)? Are they dead? Under imaginative direction this play could be funny, but the audience would file out quizzically shaking their heads.

Students of American literature should take a look at James Purdy. For a quick injection I recommend the short pieces “Some of These Days,” “Reaching Rose” and “Goodnight Sweetheart.” Then the much longer “63: Dream Palace.” While, with the exceptions noted, I am not a fan of this material, it is packed with vivid imagery, bizarre and controversial characters, and interesting ideas.

Phil Harvey’s stories have appeared in 15 magazines. His new novel, Show Time, was released in May 2012.

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