The New York Times

February 27, 2005

James Purdy: The Novelist as Outlaw


I FIRST heard of James Purdy a half-century or so ago on a bright spring day in London. Edith Sitwell had asked me to lunch. We drank martinis while she put the finishing touches on a letter to The Times of London; D. H. Lawrence's novel ''Lady Chatterley's Lover'' was under attack for obscenity. Although Edith disliked Lawrence for having, she thought, caricatured her brother Sir Osbert in the novel, as the gin took its effect on each of us, I boldly assured her that the offending book was not actually the work of Lawrence but of Truman Capote. The red-rimmed eyes atop the long Gothic face narrowed: ''Surely the dates are not right.''

''Capote,'' I said, ''will never see 90 again.''

She sighed contentedly. ''That would explain the dreadful style.'' She began to write the editor of The Times: ''Dear Sir, I am a little girl of 72 and I have it on the highest literary authority. . . .''

As the bowl of martinis emptied, she put down her pen and declared: ''I have discovered a true American genius. Unknown in your country, I fear. He is called James Purdy.'' I pleaded ignorance, but I did know that Edith, for all her swirling costumes and domino-size jade rings, had a sharp eye for literary genius, if not always for talent. She had been among the first admirers of Dylan Thomas, and she put Purdy in the same class, despite the fact that his books were as carefully ignored by American book-chatterers in those days as they are pretty much in these as well. The novelist Jerome Charyn has described him as ''the outlaw of American fiction.'' Presumably, making Mr. John Updike our supreme in-law.

On Purdy's latest book jackets I hail him as ''an authentic American genius''; emphasis on the two adjectives. Purdy's prose is often reminiscent of the century before last when nouns were apt to do double duty as verbs, like ''funning,'' which an editor once told Purdy was not authentic American speech even though any student of W. C. Fields's early movies knows that it is: ''I was just funning, dear,'' says Fields to the inimitable Gloria Jean. Purdy was born and raised in New England's most authentic annex, the Western Reserve, whose crown jewel is the state of Ohio, or, as Dawn Powell once sweepingly put it, ''All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.'' That was then, of course. Frontiers have since shut down, and true blue is often mistaken by twilight's last gleaming for red.

Carroll & Graf is publishing a novel and a volume of Purdy's short stories: ''Eustace Chisholm and the Works'' (1967) and ''Moe's Villa and Other Stories'' (2003), with another novel, ''The House of the Solitary Maggot'' (1974), to be issued in May. The last is part of an ongoing cycle or ''continuous novel'' called ''Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.'' Luckily for Purdy, he has never had a Maxwell Perkins to slice up his continuous novel into commercial bite-size chunks, losing in the process the narrative flow that Thomas Wolfe lost so much of in life and, even worse, after death, when editors sawed away at his vast American novel to make their own diminished conventional novels (David Herbert Donald's biography of Wolfe describes in bloody detail their charnel house approach to a great original text). One good thing about being an outlaw is that Purdy has been able to make his own divisions of his whole work, and so each novel stands entire by itself while the whole awaits archaeology and constitution of a work that is already like no other.

''Gay'' literature, particularly by writers still alive, is a large cemetery where unalike writers, except for their supposed sexual desires, are thrown together in a lot well off the beaten track of family values. James Purdy, who should one day be placed alongside William Faulkner in the somber Gothic corner of the cemetery of American literature, instead is being routed to lie alongside non-relatives.

It is interesting that in a time of renewed debate over sexual matters (disguised clumsily as ''moral values'') James Purdy is re-emerging from the shadows. The first shadow fell upon him with his first novel, ''63: Dream Palace'' (1956), described by the publisher as ''dealing with obsessive love, homosexuality and urban alienation,'' and ending ''with fratricide. . . . Purdy writes about men who are unable to express their love for other men because homosexuality is unthinkable to them.'' Actually, as Purdy demonstrates, it is quite thinkable to everyone else. He has gone his lonely way; sometimes darkly comic, other times tragic as he faces down the ''kindly ones'' in his path, the Greeks' euphemism for the Furies that forever dog mankind.

Biography on Purdy is scant. He was born in 1923 in Ohio, moved to Chicago in his teens, attended the University of Chicago and the University of Puebla in Mexico. From 1949 to 1953 he taught at Lawrence College in Wisconsin and then lived abroad for some years (where?). He now lives in Brooklyn. Apparently, he began to publish stories in magazines in the 1940's. In the 1950's, he tried without success to find an American publisher. His first book was published privately in his own country and then by a major publisher in England, where he had many supporters in the literary world, most notably Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson.

For some years I've read his books when I could find them. At one point Edward Albee made an interesting play out of Purdy's novel ''Malcolm'' (1959). But the walls of Jericho remained standing and still stand to this day despite a unique and varied body of work. But then certain writers are simply not allowed to pass because, at some level, they genuinely disturb, causing the Confederacy of Dunces to cart away their most vivid works like so many pillars of salt to be set up in that deadly desert that separates our Oz from the real world.

''Moe's Villa and Other Stories'' is Purdy's latest publication. Some of these stories are fairy tales, like ''Kitty Blue,'' about a talking cat who is friend and muse to a great singer, while the finest and strangest of these stories is ''Reaching Rose.'' Although Purdy never abandons for long his ''Malcolm'' characters -- those lost or losing golden ephebes at large in some alien city or sleepwalking through moon-crowned countryside -- as he himself ages, he often deals with the old and their sometimes disconcerting wiles.

I FIRST read ''Eustace Chisholm and the Works'' around 1968, shortly after publication. It was a significant time in Bookchat Land. Three ''respectable'' writers would publish three so-called ''dirty books'': Philip Roth with ''Portnoy's Complaint'' (in 1969), John Updike with ''Couples'' and me with ''Myra Breckinridge.'' I don't recall a single word written about any of the three. ''Eustace Chisholm'' is something of a shocker. I have now reread it and am surprised at how much I recall after so many years.

The book begins in a Dreiserian Chicago: ''Here amidst the industrial whirlwind of America's economic burnout, the unemployed, in nondescript small separate armies, with a generous sprinkling of white youths from small towns and farms and up-from-the-South Negroes, stood in line to go on relief. Eustace Chisholm had been caught up in two tragedies, the national one of his country's economic collapse, and his failed attempt to combine marriage with the calling of narrative poet. He wondered whether it was because of his inability to produce a book or merely the general tenor of the times that his wife, Carla, who had supported him hand and mouth for two years, ran out on him with a baker's apprentice some six months before this story begins.'' He sits all alone, ''writing as usual on his long poem about 'original stock' in America,'' a seemingly eclectic mix of Indians, blacks and Western Reservists. He is 29 and writes his poem with a bit of charcoal on sheets of The Chicago Tribune.

Unannounced, the fugitive wife, Carla, returns. Eustace is uncharmed. He tells her she is acceptable only as ''breadwinner.'' She agrees to this role, marked as she is now by the Scarlet Letter. Wife turned breadwinner and poet of ''original stock'' in America gossip idly as she refits herself into the apartment and the life of her husband, also known as Ace.

Purdy, like a polite host, now tells us a bit about Eustace: ''After his father failed in business in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and shot himself through the roof of his mouth in the canning-factory office from which he had conducted his affairs for over 30 years, Eustace Chisholm, two days after the funeral, left for Chicago. The next fall he began attending the university for a while, and actually came close to being graduated. Coming out into the world at the end of the Hoover and beginning of the Roosevelt period, he could find no work except a few part-time jobs that did not last: he worked as a short-order cook in a Pullman-car eatery, as a receptionist-file clerk in a home for feeble-minded boys, as a reader to a blind millionaire and whatever else he could get.'' At one level this is a nice parody of the realist style of the day; at another it tells us what one ends up doing in a Depression. (Are happy days here again?)

While Carla prepares lunch, Eustace goes into the front room, where he is to get a lesson in Greek from the adolescent Amos Ratcliffe. The golden youth has been dropped from the university despite the fact that he is a prodigy. He is also a classic beauty, which, as does his mastery of Greek, carries unusual weight with Eustace, who wonders if he will live long enough ''to read Pindar.''

'' 'You should get as far as ''The Greek Anthology,'' ' Amos Ratcliffe ventured, encouraging his pupil with a nice show of teeth.''

Various characters interact. Amos is sold to a millionaire. Eustace never learns to read Pindar; he also gives up poetry. The narrative finally focuses on Daniel Haws, a dark-complected, godlike young man (possibly part American Indian) who has served in the Army. As Amos, with a new wardrobe from his millionaire gentleman, reluctantly moves on, Daniel decides to re-enlist.

''Daniel Haws's life had come to a full halt, almost an end, when he had been separated under obscure circumstances from the regular U.S. Army. Everything for him since then had been sleepwalking, in one form or another. It was Army ceremonies and routine that he seemed to be re-enacting at many times of the day . . . from breakfast to bed check.''

Now Daniel re-enlists and is posted to a camp in Biloxi, Miss. ''On the very first night of his arrival in camp, he had sleepwalked into the tent of Captain Stadger. The officer, still awake at 2:30 a.m. and swatting from time to time at a moth which flew about his only illumination, a flashlight, was occupied in rubbing salve into a ringworm on his arm. He looked up with unbelief and yet with an expression of recognition and fulfilled hope at the sight of the soldier standing stark naked with sightless eyes before him.

''Rising, pointing his flashlight away from the soldier's face and over his body, the captain studied and waited. Then sensing what he had on his hands, he quickly looked at the serial number on the sleepwalker's dog tag and in a hollow voice of command, in strict military etiquette, dismissed his caller with the implication that it had been the captain who had summoned him from his tent and would summon him again. Obedient, Daniel saluted and, with still unseeing eyes, pivoted and with steady bearing marched back to his cot.'' Fate has taken over his case.

The captain's ingenuity as a torturer would have earned him a golden leaf of promotion in that Abu Ghraib of our heartland. Purdy mercilessly describes the slow murder of the handsome soldier's flesh, setting off all sorts of images in a reader's mind from Billy Budd to the last but one century's terrible tales of Indians and Puritans tearing each other apart long before the Western Reserve was peopled by usurpers. In a blaze of pain and fury characters, one by one, cease to be. As Amos, Daniel and the captain become ghosts, Purdy quotes from Dryden's translation of Virgil:

I know thee, Love! in deserts thou wert bred,
And at the dugs of savage Tigers fed;
Alien of birth, usurper of the plains!

At the end, Eustace by accident sets afire his poem and himself. Carla puts out the fire that is consuming his dressing gown. Thus, he is freed of his own delusion. ''You see how calm I am about the poem burning. I'm not a writer, that's my news, never was, and never will be.''

''I don't care what you accomplish, if anything,'' Carla tells him. ''All I ever cared about was you.''

''Then slowly, like all the sleepwalkers in the world,'' he ''took her down the long hall to their bed, held her to him, accepted her first coldness as she had for so long accepted his, and then warmed her with a kind of ravening love.''

They dream they are awake.

Gore Vidal's most recent work is a play, ''On the March to Sea.''

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