The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
James Purdy
Liveright Publishing Corporation
ISBN: 978-087140-669-9

Reviewer: Richard Canning

          James Purdy was born ninety-nine years ago in Hicksville, Ohio, a town whose very name calls forth the many nondescript small settlements which populated much of his fiction. His death just four years ago robbed America of one of its most distinctive twentieth-century voices, and of someone whose sixty-five-year career as an author of novels, stories, plays, and verse had seen him regularly lost and repeatedly rediscovered, much like many of his own characters.

          Fans included Gore Vidal, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, Paul and Jane Bowles, Edward Albee (who jokingly predicted a revival of interest each decade), and, latterly, Jonathan Franzen, who presented Purdy with the Clifton Fadiman Award at the Mercantile Library in New York in 2005. This was presumably Purdy’s last crossing of the East River; he viewed Manhattan for most of his life with utmost suspicion from his modest flat in Brooklyn Heights.

          Whenever America forgot Purdy, he was invariably found by the British, who can even claim to have first recognized Purdy’s talent. Between 1939 and 1957, he had published just three stories, but by the latter date, he had enough pieces to put together a story collection. American publishers spurned it, so Purdy had it privately printed, courtesy of a Chicagoan benefactor. On what he called a “psychic impulse,” Purdy sent a copy of Don’t Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories to the English aristocrat and poet Dame Edith Sitwell, then installed in that family’s villa outside Florence. Sitwell thought it and a subsequent novella, 63: Dream Palace (also privately printed), remarkable, and pressed the London publisher Victor Gollancz to combine the two books into one. 63: Dream Palace: a Novella and Nine Stories, Purdy’s first commercial title, appeared in 1957. Even then, Gollancz drew the line at one word in Purdy’s collection—“motherfucker”—and Purdy would face either censorship or opprobrium throughout his life, particularly for the routine use of what is now referred to as “the n word.”

          The Complete Short Stories
suggests whence Purdy’s distinctive, often period, sometimes recondite vocabulary emerged. One of the four early stories never submitted for publication found here, “A Chance to Say No,” is dedicated to the white Harlem Renaissance enthusiast, dandy, novelist, and photographer Carl van Vechten, author of the notorious Nigger Heaven (1926). Purdy wrote this story as early as 1935, when still a student at Bowling Green College. The friendship with van Vechten lasted some decades, each sharing a love of jazz, African-American traditions, and cultural forms of expression generally. Van Vechten photographed Purdy in the late 1950s and introduced his writings to Langston Hughes, who noted, without obvious praise, that this author’s “characters and situations linger in the memory.”

          If Sitwell was truly convinced that “long after my death, James Purdy will come to be recognized as one of the greatest writers America has ever produced,” she has not as yet been vindicated. Despite the widespread acclaim from other writers across generations, Purdy’s writings have remained cultish. Even now, with Norton behind this handsome and desirable collected edition, there remains an inescapable, if undeserved sense of the marginal. An introduction by Baltimore-born filmmaker John Waters enthuses winningly over the “fairy tales for your twisted mind that should never be described to the innocent.” Still, a stronger publishing strategy might have been to offer a more contextualized, even canon-seeking editorship, and perhaps to have sought out more advocates among today’s prominent literary novelists, amongst whom Franzen’s plaudits have not found echo.

          Most of Purdy’s 1960s and 1970s fictions have their enthusiasts, now as then. But by the 1980s, Purdy’s frequent novels and intermittent short-story collections were securing less and less attention. Many had either suppressed or openly gay themes; many featured non-white characters; all were replete with violence, and many stories bore tragic conclusions. They were distinctive, fully realized works, books which betrayed a singular conceptualization of humanity; however, they were somehow not only out of time, but, for many, also unfathomably archaic.

          The nascent gay Anglo-American readership began to have wider choices, in terms of the fictional expression of homosexual desires and experiences—and even was entitled, by 1971 and the long-delayed publication of Forster’s Maurice, to the occasional happy ending (something which would surely have struck Purdy as grotesquely disingenuous). Christopher Isherwood, John Rechy, and Edmund White wrote about gay male lives in a nuanced and never narrowly congratulatory way. By contrast, Purdy’s characters must have struck a 1980s readership as haunted, anachronistic, even gratuitously damned. White, for one, has described himself as “allergic” to Purdy’s oeuvre.

          Purdy became convinced of his own bad luck and was indeed somewhat jinxed. The English film director Derek Jarman wanted to film Narrow Rooms (1978) but could not secure financial backing for such a non-commercial prospect. The Candles of Your Eyes (1987), a fourth volume of stories, was marvelous, but overlooked, as were a couple more novels—one, Garments the Living Wear (1989), seeing Purdy unexpectedly embrace the present, in the form of the AIDS epidemic.

          Still, it was his last novel, the gnomic Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997), which seemed to reverse Purdy’s fortunes once again, to be followed by a story collection which initially only London would touch. Moe’s Villa and Other Stories (2000) was brought out by the tiny Arcadia imprint, though Carroll and Graf followed in the US some years later. It is an outstanding volume, filled with some of Purdy’s most memorable prose, the exceptional novella which gave the volume its title appearing in The Complete Short Stories and offering a fine late confirmation of this author’s talents.

          Sworn enthusiasts will be more excited to be told that, alongside the juvenile stories, there are three unpublished late stories, although The Complete Short Stories advertises only two of these new stories as “late”—“Vera’s Story” (written 1999-2000), a remarkable further example of Purdy narrating the loss felt by the parents of their actor son to HIV, and “Adeline,” the last story Purdy completed in publishable form in 2003. The narrative imperviousness of “Vera’s Story” displays how Purdy might never be appreciated if positive role models or political correctness are a requirement in fiction. His prelapsarian sensibility requires that he write, straightforwardly, what others also certainly felt and expressed at the time—that young men like Rick were “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.”

          “Adeline” is just as provocative. The protagonist is an artist who grows obsessed with a young kitchen menial he espies in a tavern called La Fonda. When he asks the proprietor if he has any concerns over him asking Adeline to sit for him as his model, the owner replies, in the same phrasing which might have been conveyed by a Venetian parent in the fifteenth century: “Forget that... You are a gentleman and a famous artist.” Adeline turns out to be a ravishing boy, however, rather than a girl, and the artist’s world is inverted, alongside his understanding of his own sexual nature.

          But a third tale, “Dr Dieck and Company,” is certainly a late, or latish story too, since it was written in 1986, even though it concerns Purdy’s earlier life experiences during his so-called “lost decade” in the 1940s and 1950s as a Spanish tutor in Appleton, Wisconsin. As these stories are not being presented to us as surrogate biography, it is a mystery as to why this tale should be classified instead as an “early” work. At any rate, it turns out to be amongst Purdy’s most successfully comic stories—and most reflective too, as it recounts the experiences of Dr Dick Dierk, a literary “big frog” in a very tiny pond indeed, someone whose novels had never been finished by any reader, except those condemned to take his Creative Writing class. Even then, many, it transpires, did not succeed.

          Of the other previously unpublished stories, ‘The Pupil’ (1956) is the most realized, though presumably the frank sexual encounter between teacher and schoolboy rendered it self-evidently beyond publication in Purdy’s lifetime. Still, it only differs in degree from the repeatedly vivid, often sensationally transgressive erotic encounters found throughout these stories. Men burn with mutual longing, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes buried, sometimes sublimated. Occasionally homoerotic feeling is even projected onto women, though the consequent coitus is rarely satisfying for both parties and may involve violence or coercion. Heterosexuality in Purdy’s work might indeed strike the reader as either improbable or grotesque—or both: “He inserted his membrum virile quickly into her body, and covered his face with his freely flowing saliva.”

          Some critics have found Purdy’s explicitness concerning. Benjamin Markovits, in a mostly adulatory review of The Complete Short Stories published in the Times Literary Supplement, questioned how, in the 1986 story “Rapture,” a soldier on leave visits his dying sister, only to discover that he and his teenage nephew are mutually besotted. Markovits intelligently suggested that this narrative had “pornography’s air of easy wish fulfilment. Real life, real tragedy turn out to be merely the staging ground for more sex.” There is something in this, though it is, perhaps, to acknowledge little more than that, as is the case with many fabulists and fantasists, Purdy is ill-judged if considered primarily in terms of the fictional traditions he most abjured, naturalism and realism.

          Uncle Kent in this story is emblematic of Purdy’s Puritanical self-accounting. All Purdy’s characters prove either abstemious or super-indulgent—two sides of the same coin, in fact, both being responses to the many Judeo-Christian strictures which seek to bind their lives and ours. Kent might reassure himself that he neither smokes nor drinks, but this leads to his infatuated nephew Brice feeding on this soldier’s self-presentation as a worthy role model, soon becoming his lover. Transgression in Purdy’s world is thus a constant fear, ubiquitous danger, or sheer inevitability. Oscar Wilde may have joked about being unable to resist temptation; Purdy’s personae demonstrate this truism completely. The fairy tale element in Purdy’s imaginative worlds reminds us as well how far Wilde pushed that particular form, in terms of its capability, announcing and addressing very adult dilemmas, all the while retaining a children’s readership.

          Purdy’s characters, however, unlike Wilde’s, are post-Edenic toilers whose backgrounds are barely sketched in. Like Edgar Allen Poe, Purdy stands as one of America’s unequivocally “universal” landscapists in fiction: even the relative distinctness of Purdy’s New York settings rejects too much specificity, functioning as something closer to an exaggerated backdrop of a Russian city, say, in an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. That these settings too are post-Edenic is their most distinctive characteristic, and while this ties Purdy strongly to the Puritanical tendencies in American literature, from Emerson and Thoreau onwards, it also stresses the universal humanity of the characters involved. These people could scarcely do other than announce their own lack: they all profoundly lack something; hence, the extreme nature of their desire, which always approaches desperation.

          Markovits found remarkable the thematic unity to be found across these seven hundred pages. He lists the following recurrent concerns: “sex and parents, wayward sons, extremes of poverty and wealth, mansions and hovels.” Markovits doesn’t notice, however, how stunningly Biblical the list is. It approaches a “Greatest Hits” of scriptural parables. For Purdy’s writing—like Poe’s before him, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s too (in his stories, at least)—circuits the shared, fallen human condition, even as the detail in each piece may take ready flight from the everyday or commonplace. Children litter these narratives, but they are simply younger inhabitants of the immature, dependent, conditional state which we all navigate—and against which we all struggle.

          John Leland has argued that Purdy’s stories appear to emerge from dreams, which is precisely the way the author spoke of his inspiration. He read deeply and repeatedly in Shakespeare, in the King James Bible—the tome he described in a 2004 interview as “a great, naked book”—and also in the Spanish picaresque, all of which can be considered to embrace a parabolic literary form, one in which their authors showed, rather than told, and otherwise explained or absolved nothing. Hence Purdy’s impatience with setting or context: the desires, secrets, challenges, and sensations felt by his characters were, for him, intrinsic to an essential humanity. He was merely the latest scribe to call them all up. And perverse as his creations were sexually, he never saw that perverseness in stereotypical terms of gay and straight, or indeed in terms of the significance of the age, gender, or even species of the object of desire. 

          We can suggest other influences, perhaps—at times, Saki; at other times, James; at yet other times, Firbank—but we may then rather be uncovering an accidental commonality. For Purdy seems ultimately to have emerged as a writer fully formed and immune to subsequent influence. If some aspects of his fiction jar today—the simplified idealization of non-white characters and lives; the near misogyny in his characterization of women; the relative inertness of his animal fables—there is nonetheless still so much to savour in these fifty-six stories and in the best of the novels too. Purdy held a vision of human experience which few writers today would be bold enough to equal, let alone express in such an unguarded form. Purdy’s book jacket designs were often naive scribbles, and his approach to written creativity remained comparably direct and elemental in its address—childlike, indeed.

          This is a winning illusion and a hard achievement, in fact, since the world view betrayed in his fiction was—even if indirectly—complex, resourceful, and wise. Wretched as the circumstances and outcomes of his characters’ ill-directed fumbling and self-deceit may be, they are also winningly poignant, comical, terrifying, and always distinctive. James Purdy wrote the naked truth. Here at last is his own great, naked book.

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