James Purdy is probably the best twentieth century American fiction writer of limited reputation. Despite numerous novels and short stories of impeccable artistry, he has not received the acclaim that he deserves, at least partly because he is gay and African American, but also because of the unusual nature of his fiction, which is difficult to categorize. Color of Darkness is the first collection of that unusual fiction published in the United States, in 1957. The novella Sixty-three: Dream Palace and most of the stories in the collection were published previously in England.
Most fundamental to Purdy’s writing is his obsession with and genius for portraying the evil inherent in human relationships, the incredible cruelty with which human beings often treat each other. This dark vision, akin to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville in its psychological realism but also with elements of the gothic reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Purdy admires, appears in incipient but often powerful form in Color of Darkness.
The title story, “Color of Darkness,” astutely presents how emotional coldness, similar to the heart of stone that will not burn in Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” (1850), can ruin a child. The father in “Color of Darkness” has no emotional tie to his son, Baxter, who is a virtual stranger. The son’s evil traits (defiance, obscenity, violence) derive directly from his father’s own inability to be a loving parent to his child. This inability to parent is effectively symbolized by Baxter’s finding and fighting over his father’s discarded wedding ring, the emblem of the marriage that should have provided Baxter with a two-parent family but which did not...
(The entire section is 712 words.)