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To those lucky saps who find themselves in possession of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy (Liveright Publishing): be warned. The temptation to belly up to all 58 stories, written between the late 1930s and 2003, may be overwhelming. Eager readers who opt to binge will discover that Purdy’s particular prose is best consumed in small doses. John Waters, in his breviloquent three-page introduction, advises that these “gracefully disquieting stories for the wicked” are best thought of as a “ten-pound box of poison chocolates you keep beside your bed.” The aftertaste between stories swings from lurid to banal to bitter without warning. If you try to burn through the masochist’s buffet that Purdy left behind, you might find yourself reaching for the medicine cabinet.
Along the same lines, it’s a losing gambit to try to analyze an author by reading his work. But it’s hard to resist, especially when that author, wh died in 2009 at the age of 94, lived a life rich enough for biographers to mine–regardless of how miserable he may have found it. To date, no one has taken up the task of writing a Purdy biography, but in the meantime, the author’s literary executor, John Uecker has produced the definitive collection of short fiction with some biographical notes that help explain Purdy’s ability to use comic touches and Biblical allusions to buoy his chronic melancholy.
“You really can’t feel sorry for yourself when you see yourself in another …,” Purdy wrote in “You Reach For Your Hat,” (published by Mademoiselle in March 1957 as “You Reach For Your Wrap”). It’s a philosophy he carries through most of his kinder character portrayals.
After teaching in near isolation for a decade in Wisconsin, Purdy spent some festive, yet career-frustrating, time in Chicago, hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, before settling in Brooklyn. His early writing was adored by Gore Vidal, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Edward Albee, among others. Dame Edith Sitwell introduced him to the British literati with much fanfare. But most American critics were indifferent to or even repulsed by Purdy’s novels with themes and characters that mirrored his misanthropic, malevolent stories.
“Homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject matter but by tone,” is how Wilfrid Sheed, The New York Times reviewer, dismissed Purdy’s 1967 “Eustace Chisholm and the Works.” In 2005, Brooklyn-novelist Jonathan Franzen presented Purdy with the Clifton Fadiman Award and a new generation with a forgotten hipster forefather.
Although Purdy scored a few Guggenheim grants in the mid-century, he never broke through to the level of success others anticipated for him. As readers snatched up Bellow, Capote, Mailer and Updike, Purdy’s scribbling grew darker, queerer, and more obscure.
In an introductory note to the section of the book called “Early Stories,” Uecker quotes the author: “I think I learned early on that the only subjects I could deal with were impossible. That is, they were impossible to write because they were so difficult; if I chose an easy subject, I couldn’t write it because it wouldn’t mean anything to me. So nearly all my stories are based on ‘impossible’ subjects.”
Purdy’s earliest story, “A Chance To Say No,” written “circa 1935-1939,” dedicated to Carl van Vechten, and previously unpublished, sets the bar for impossible characters when a foolhardy young woman named Hilda tears up her passport three days before she and her confounded boyfriend, Buddy, are set to leave for a European vacation.
In “The Pupil,” another “early story,” written in 1956, Purdy plants his homoerotic flag firmly and lets it fly with a taut one-hander that explores the power dynamic between a coach and a Cuban student who resemble–and ultimately desire–one another. As the narrator explains: “The boy was slim and lithe and the coach, five or six years older at most, had the same body, but thicker and heavier from the muscles he had consciously and assiduously gained.” Climaxing in a near-cannabilistic blow-job, it closes, uncharacteristically for Purdy’s sexual scenes, with gentle, loving kisses.
Purdy’s notorious “Some of These Days,” published in 1975, reads like a pre-AIDS AIDS story. A damaged, delusional ex-con searches porno theaters on 3rd Avenue for his “queer” landlord. He begs on the street so that he can afford the “three bucks” it costs to enter, eventually foregoing food and allowing the patrons to “take any liberty they was in a mind to with me in the hopes that through this contact they would divulge the whereabouts of my landlord”-or “my lord,” as “I would call him for short.”
“This came to be my only connection to the world, my only life,” the ailing narrator confesses, before being told by a doctor, as he hovers incoherently between life and death, that he has a “sickness…for which unfortunately there is today no cure.”
Purdy acknowledged AIDS in “Vera’s Story,” the first of the book’s two “Final Stories,” dated “November 1999-February 2000”–also appearing for the first time in print. Purdy writes of the title character: “She had, after all, gone to see her boy, to see one who, according to the verdict of society, was dying under the virus of the most infamous disease yet known, a disease more commonly recognized as the infection of young men of a dissolute life.”
Purdy returns to some of the early romanticism and fairy tale realism he played with in pieces such as “Daddy Wolf,” “Mud Toe the Cannibal,” and “Kitty Blue” (which reads like a send-up of the drug-addled prose of Tennessee Williams) in the collection’s closing story, “Adeline,” (2003). An old, well-respected artist, Master Bruno, becomes obsessed with the “unspoiled beauty” of the titular young androgyne, who “as if by something like magic” transforms into Bruno’s “valuable housemate and something of both a nurse and even a physician.”
“In his art,” Purdy’s omniscient narrator explains, “Adeline was now both a young girl and a young man and this became for Bruno his final and greatest creation, the two were one and the one was two. The one was two the two were one.”
In Purdy’s art, misfits deemed degenerate by mid-century America abound. Physical and psychological cripples are more than willing to share their existential escapades, voices fluctuating between selectively omniscient narrators and first-person monologues full of spit and vernacular. Some exist in noxious environments far from Norman Rockwell’s brush. But more than just brave, queer, early documents and fairy tales for the marginalized, Purdy has the power to portray a multitude of “straight” characters, from a brutalized boy named Baxter struggling with his mother’s desertion in “Color of Darkness,” the 100-year-old Delia Mattlock’s weak grasp of where her jewels lie in “The White Blackbird,” and even “GOD” in an epistle, entitled “Sermon” and addressed to “Ladies and people.”
For many readers, Purdy’s words may hold too much desperation and desolation to forge through without being depressing. For others, his disarming sense of humor–or at least his smile-inducing oddness–are inspirational. Despite the frustrations and obscurity that struggling writers suspect–and all “failed” writers understand–as their lot in life, James Purdy’s unwavering adherence to his unique, inner voice and his ability to survive on his own terms remained as strong to the end as they had been in the beginning.
The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
By James Purdy
Paperback, 9780871407757, 752 pp.
July 2014 (Paperback Edition)