Color of Darkness, James Purdy’s first book, is a collection made up of eleven short stories and a novella. In the course of the work, ordinary human experiences are purposely exaggerated to reveal a covert truth.
Purdy went on to write novels, more short stories, and plays. Yet if a writer’s first book can be thought to serve as a signpost to the road of his intention, Color of Darkness points the way to a very personal arena that Purdy was marking out as his own, and in it he dealt with the sort of problem, and the types of people, with which he continued to concern himself in his later oeuvre. From the time of his first work, Purdy showed a penchant for unusual and often bizarre situations that his characters, by contrast, seem hardly to notice. In Purdy’s work, the outlandish is handled with nonchalance, and the mundane contains the outlandish.
Each story, like a candle, would guide readers through the darkness, but some burn more and others less intensely. In the more skillful stories, “Sound of Talking,” “Cutting Edge,” and the title story, “Color of Darkness,” readers are inescapably confronted with one of the most hidden of human secrets: Contact with one another makes people the helpless victims of ambivalence. The lifelong precept that there should be no hate for those who are closest and dearest forces people into concealing the truth when it is at variance with the precept. In Color of Darkness, Purdy tries courageously to explore that hidden passageway and to shine his light on the unreasoning, frightening ambivalence that causes a child to brutalize his pet and then to hug it lovingly and tearfully.
In “Sound of Talking,” probably the best story in the collection, Purdy demonstrates how surely he can implicate his reader in the situation he draws. In a kitchen, a woman is talking to her husband, Vergil, who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair; he is in pain. Mrs. Farebrother, who knows her husband well, counters his steady flow of bilious expletives with a loquacity designed to distract him from his pain. By the time they realize that the deceptively innocent kitchen is really Mrs. Farebrother’s wheelchair and that she is irrevocably locked into her husband’s ebbing life, readers have already witnessed and sympathized with her impotent flutterings of chatter. By allowing themselves to welcome her to the fire, Purdy’s readers must recognize that her ambivalence, when it reveals itself, is a reflection of their own. At that point, the readers too need respite from the responsibility of caring for a helpless fellow human being.
It is small wonder that Mrs. Farebrother comes to admire a bird, a bird that not only can fly but can talk as well. The raven that called her into the seed store keeps readers focused upon that one point of concentration, Mrs. Farebrother’s paralytic ambivalence, so that all seemingly independent strands of thought or conversation are ultimately seen as a careful release from this single spool.
The woman first speaks of desire: She would like a bird, a raven. As she describes to her paraplegic husband the events that led up to that desire, she remembers her former attraction to a boy who was called The Raven, and that the bird talks of someone who is dead. Both thoughts are seen to be repetitions of her nighttime speculations. In the dark, in her need, she can safely wish Vergil dead, but during the daylight hours, when such thoughts have scurried to their hiding place, she must sheathe herself in solicitous redress. This has been her life’s condition since Vergil’s release from the hospital.
The raven is a perfect solution. It would amuse her husband, she hopes, and signify the achievement of a mutual desire; both will have made the decision to have the bird. That there would be an even greater profit is known to the reader by implication. The bird’s presence would give brazen, corporeal expression to her more timid, ambivalent, hidden thoughts. Vergil’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the pet, however, eliminates all possibility of their ever sharing a desire again. The...