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Daddy Wolf Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

James Purdy’s concerns about the vanquished in American society reach full cry in this monologue by a veteran of the Korean War. Speaking from a phone booth, apparently in the hallway of the rat-infested tenement in which he lives, Benny addresses someone who appears to be waiting to use the phone. He asks the person to be patient a little bit longer because he is attempting to get the operator to reconnect him with a woman with whom he has been talking. From his position in the phone booth, he also can see into his flat, the door of which has been left open.

The reader is in the position of the person waiting to use the phone: He or she must listen to Benny’s litany, must hear about Benny’s wife, who has given up trying to cope with life on the ragged edge of poverty and who has taken herself and their son out of the city. Economic hardships are a commonplace of Benny’s existence, and he now works for little pay in a company that makes mittens. So hard-pressed has he been that his only food is a bowl of Cream of Wheat leavened with some brown sugar. In fact, he is about to be displaced in his linoleum-floored apartment by a mama rat and her baby, which emerge periodically from the holes in the floor.

Before his wife left him, she had gotten in the habit of calling someone named Daddy Wolf at a number described as the Trouble Phone number. She would talk to Daddy Wolf about her problems, and he would unfailingly offer the same remedies: Stand by your man, go to church, and read uplifting books whenever sexual desire troubles you. Daddy Wolf was for ladies only, however, and Benny, desperate in his need for his own trouble phone, has picked a number at random from the phone book and has been pouring out his woes to a female voice that responds only occasionally with “I see.”

Ground down by a system that offers platitudinous prerecorded messages, Benny and Mabel, the absent wife, represent the urban poor in the United States, victims of a system that they have had no part in creating and that they cannot control. Mabel, the reader learns indirectly, had to resort to prostitution to get money to provide food for the family. A report she heard about the increase of venereal disease in the city provided additional impetus for her flight. Daddy Wolf cannot save her, and in his own desperate search for someone to listen, to care, Benny pleads with the operator at the story’s end to help him because his is an emergency phone call.