The Stories

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“Color of Darkness.” A young boy named Baxter has a bizarre relationship with his often-absent father. Baxter wants to be close to his father, physically and emotionally, but his father admits that he does not know people, that he cannot even remember the color of his former wife’s eyes or of Baxter’s eyes. The boy accuses his father of always thinking about something else, and his father thinks of his son as an infant brother whom he does not know well.

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Baxter’s father, upset to learn that his son sleeps with a toy crocodile, buys him a puppy, but Baxter only likes the dog’s misbehavior, such as when he soils the floor. One day, Baxter and his father argue over something that Baxter has in his mouth. It turns out to be his father’s wedding ring, negligently cast aside. After being forced to spit out the ring, Baxter kicks his father in the groin and calls him a foul name.

“Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” Paul, a young boy, finds a box of photographs of his long-dead father, whom Paul never knew. He stays home from school for several days, looking at the photographs. His mother, Ethel, who refuses to let her son call her Mama, criticizes Paul after hearing him tell his friend over the telephone that he is a “sick kid.”

One day, a few months later, Ethel awakens to find that Paul is not in his cot. She goes to the kitchen to search for him—skeptically because Paul never eats anything, as far as she can tell. She finds him at the back stairs, sleeping protectively beside the photographs. She tries to take them from him, saying the photographs are the cause of his being sickly. She wants to punish him and says she will burn the photos. Paul pleadingly encircles her legs. She tells him not to touch her and then threatens him with mental incarceration. She takes him to the basement and tells him to throw the photographs into the blazing furnace. Paul refuses to do so and runs, but she catches him and is able to burn some of the photographs. Paul crouches over the remaining photographs and hisses at his mother, while blackness spews from his mouth.

“Sixty-three: Dream Palace.” Fenton Riddleway, a young man who is twenty years old, and his sickly younger brother, Claire, move from rural West Virginia to the city after the death of their mother. They have nothing, so they take up residence in an abandoned slum dwelling, which has only one bed and is bug-infested. However, Fenton meets a writer who takes an interest in him and then introduces him to a wealthy, middle-age widow. The woman, Fenton realizes, likes him because he reminds her of her deceased husband, and Fenton knows that she will take him and his brother in if Claire agrees to go.

However, unlike Fenton, Claire is religious and refuses to go, saying it would be a rotten thing to do. Fenton argues, saying he has dreamed that he marries the rich woman and lives in a mansion and dresses grandly. Claire will have none of it, and even Fenton admits to something rotten about it all. Fenton is enraged at Claire, though, realizing that he cannot go without his little brother, or that, if he does, he will have no peace, knowing he has deserted Claire in the slums in the not-right house.

Fenton is outside one day and is picked up by a gay man on the way to a play. After the play, the man takes Fenton to a postperformance party with the cast, where Fenton drinks too much. The man attempts to molest him, but Fenton fights him and escapes. He returns to the old slum house and finds Claire dead. Fenton then recognizes that he killed Claire in his rage before leaving the house. Realizing now, too late, that Claire mattered much more to him than his own dream of gigolo prosperity, Fenton places Claire’s body upstairs in the old house in an old chest.

Style and Technique

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Purdy achieves much of the intensity of his story through the contrast between the inertness of the generalizations spoken by the characters and the vitality of his symbols. The abstract assertions of both Mrs. Zilke and the father are the deadest of social cliches, meaningless abstractions: “You know everything,” “As long as a parent is living, any parent, a child has something.” Every conversation degenerates into such meaningless, trite, vague nonstatements with the repetition of highly abstract nouns such as “something,” “everything,” “thing,” or equally vaporous verbs such as “know” or “seems.” Such generalizing vitiates all of their perceptions.

The images, on the other hand, accrue meaning or significance as Purdy either directly associates them with characteristics of his characters or takes images with strong traditional meanings and gives them deliberate twists. The pipe smoke of the father and the cigarette smoke of Mrs. Zilke, which are examples of the first use of symbols, represent the amorphous deadness of their thoughts and feelings expressed in the equally dead words that issue from their mouths. As the smoke obscures their faces, so their words obscure reality by acting as a screen between themselves and their feelings as well as the world about them. The image of the title is symbolic in the same way. The color of darkness is a noncolor or the most abstract of colors. It represents the opposite of the particular blue of Baxter’s eyes, which stand for phenomenological specifics. The color of darkness, then, is the color of abstraction.

As the phrase “color of darkness” contains within itself its own negation, so many of Purdy’s major images have their traditional meanings reversed by the context of the story. The symbolic significance of the brandy, which traditionally would serve to suggest sharing, is reversed. The adults discuss the look, the smell, and the taste of it, sharing their experience of it, but as usual, the discussion becomes generalized in the extreme. Finally, Mrs. Zilke does not drink it. There is no real bond among these people; the bond of abstraction can be no more real than the color of darkness. The dog bought to replace the crocodile wets on the floor, bites Baxter, and leads to Baxter’s attack on his father. In like manner, the wedding ring, a traditional symbol of the communion between people, becomes a symbol of the absence of any communion. These images of the denial of communion culminate in that of the father crying in pain after refusing Mrs. Zilke’s offer of help: an image that expresses the theme of the story in uniting the specific with the abstract. Baxter’s kick has penetrated the father’s shell of abstraction, making him feel the pain of being alive.

Color of Darkness

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Critical Evaluation:

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 story ends with this realization, and both continue to manipulate their wheelchairs. For the reader, having sympathized with Mrs. Farebrother, there is a recognition that her love-hate ambivalence is an exaggeration of something familiar.

Also familiar is the situation in the title story, “Color of Darkness,” which concludes uncomfortably, like a long unfulfilled desire nakedly exposed. The faintly dreamlike quality that suffuses this story may be attributed to the pensive nature of the father who is preoccupied with the exploration of his identity. He is out of touch with the people around him, the victim of his inappropriate responses to them. Purdy designates him “the father,” which is a most suitable epithet in its paradoxical implications. He is, indeed, the actual father of the boy, Baxter, for which he will be punished, but he has long ago delegated his parental responsibilities to his housekeeper-“mother,” Mrs. Zilke. It is she who at the conclusion of the story has learned with the reader that the boy is already corrupted, that he knows the ways of the world and is a sinister member of the community. From its hiding place within the half-truth of love and affection expressed in the boy’s snuggling close and suddenly and surprisingly kissing his father, leaps forth the other half to complete the truth, his protestations of hate, culminating with a kick in the groin and an obscene word for that same bewildered father. Baxter allows himself to expose his ambivalence because his father is weak. Purdy recognizes in human beings an animal aversion to weakness and sickness that leads to brutality.

Most people handle their ambivalence more gracefully but must recognize that an intensification of the circumstances that evoke such unwelcome feelings could weaken the check on their manifestations. Purdy has intensified and exaggerated to denote a truth, and the reader must identify his own properly.

In the novella “63: Dream Palace” and in the story “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” the truth that Purdy overstates remains hidden in the exaggeration. It is hidden because the distortion allows readers to deny the relevance to themselves of a boy who murders the brother he loves in an abandoned house, or of a mother who drives her son into a hysterical state, apparently beyond recall. Readers may sense the horror of it, the disgust of it, but those “abnormalities” are the acts of distant relatives. There is a saving aura of unreality here for the readers, a dreamlike quality through which they may escape our responsibility of recognition.

The novella’s exposition would have readers believe that Fenton Riddleway, a boy who is possessed of what Sigmund Freud called brutal egotism, is extremely important to the interlocutors, Grainger and Parkhearst. Their intimacy and boredom, conveyed by what feebly attempts to pass for provocative conversation, suggest that the boy is the subject of frequent discussion and considerable thought. The story’s energy is dispersed among the lives of Parkhearst, Grainger, and Fenton, settling finally on the Fenton fragment.

The boy has neither charm nor grace; he demonstrates no wit, nor is he particularly intelligent. His interests are personal, and his learning understandably little. In fact, the most interesting thing about him is the situation in which he finds himself. He is unfamiliar with the city in which he is stranded and is waiting for someone to guide him from the abandoned house to which he was directed. His ability to fascinate seems locked with him within the story, and the reader must accept Fenton as the protagonist of a homosexual daydream. Fenton fails to make the reader dream, however; he is inordinately cruel to his brother Claire, and he abuses everyone whose interest in him indicates a weakness. Those who are willing to indulge his predatory nature resemble some flat-toothed creatures who happily embrace the beautiful tiger. Physical beauty is the quality that Fenton possesses, and those who meet him once may never recover from the encounter.

The novella insists that the handsome boy brings havoc to all who seek him out. Why he is considered so valuable a possession cannot be understood easily. The victims’ willingness, therefore, to be oppressed, and to share oppression with their friends—Parkhearst brings the tormentor to Grainger and Bruno brings him to Hayden—seems to be an indulgence in homosexual fantasy. This, however, is not the nightmare of a Franz Kafka story that well might be the daylight experience of a nighttime adventure; rather, it is as if the reader were eavesdropping on someone else’s fantasy.

Bibliography:

Adams, Stephen D. James Purdy. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. Provides detailed interpretations of Purdy’s work. Analyzes his use of character and theme, as well as his distinctive characteristics of symbol and style, placing him in the tradition of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Describes Purdy as a Christian existentialist.

Chupack, Henry. James Purdy. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Excellent introductory source. Presents Purdy’s use of gothic devices to portray a cold, barren world centered around loveless families. Clear analysis of each story, discussing character and exploring the collection’s basic theme of tragic incompatibility. Extremely helpful annotated bibliography.

Malin, Irving. New American Gothic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Discusses Purdy’s use of misfits as heroes, analyzing the symbolism with which he illustrates the horror in his characters’ everyday lives. Focuses on “63: Dream Palace,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” and “Man and Wife.”

Peden, William Harwood. The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940-1975. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Evaluates Purdy’s ruthlessly honest portrayal of emotional or physical grotesques. Discusses his use of paradox and contrast in “63: Dream Palace,” “Color of Darkness,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” and “Cutting Edge.”

Schwarzschild, Bettina. The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968. Interesting collection of essays discussing Purdy’s use of setting and atmosphere and his uniquely accurate portraits of physically or psychically wounded characters. Good analysis of “63: Dream Palace” and “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Adams, Stephen D. James Purdy. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. Provides detailed interpretations of Purdy’s work. Analyzes his use of character and theme, as well as his distinctive characteristics of symbol and style, placing him in the tradition of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Describes Purdy as a Christian existentialist.

Chupack, Henry. James Purdy. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Excellent introductory source. Presents Purdy’s use of gothic devices to portray a cold, barren world centered around loveless families. Clear analysis of each story, discussing character and exploring the collection’s basic theme of tragic incompatibility. Extremely helpful annotated bibliography.

Malin, Irving. New American Gothic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Discusses Purdy’s use of misfits as heroes, analyzing the symbolism with which he illustrates the horror in his characters’ everyday lives. Focuses on “63: Dream Palace,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” and “Man and Wife.”

Peden, William Harwood. The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940-1975. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Evaluates Purdy’s ruthlessly honest portrayal of emotional or physical grotesques. Discusses his use of paradox and contrast in “63: Dream Palace,” “Color of Darkness,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” and “Cutting Edge.”

Schwarzschild, Bettina. The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968. Interesting collection of essays discussing Purdy’s use of setting and atmosphere and his uniquely accurate portraits of physically or psychically wounded characters. Good analysis of “63: Dream Palace” and “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name.”

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