James Purdy Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4296

Because James Purdy was so hesitant to make public the details of his private life, it is impossible to correlate any of his works with his personal experiences. His works are hermetically sealed from his life and must be examined as entities in themselves. Purdy’s themes, styles, and ideas change,...

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Because James Purdy was so hesitant to make public the details of his private life, it is impossible to correlate any of his works with his personal experiences. His works are hermetically sealed from his life and must be examined as entities in themselves. Purdy’s themes, styles, and ideas change, develop, and expand from novel to novel, so it is not possible to delineate any one particular aspect of his work that is found consistently throughout. Certain preoccupations, however, are found, in varying degrees, in most of his works, and certain characteristics that are typical of postmodern fiction.

The characters in Purdy’s novels are bizarre, grotesque, and governed by abnormal impulses and desires. Purdy uses his characters for purposes of symbolic manipulation rather than for the purpose of character development in the traditional sense. Many of his characters are physically or mentally mutilated, or both: They are tattooed, wounded, stabbed, raped, and, in one case, crucified. One of the major characteristics of all of his novels is his use of “unreal” characters whose thinking processes are “nonrealistic.”

A primary concern of Purdy is the relationship of children to their parents; most of his novels include a domineering phallic woman, the search for a father, and the interrelationships within a family matrix. Many of his characters are orphans, illegitimate children, or children who have been abandoned by their parents. Along with these motifs, Purdy is preoccupied with the idea of being “grown-up” or mature. Within the quest for a father figure, the idea of becoming mature is interwoven into the text, and within this framework Purdy usually parodies the search for identity and its resultant ambivalence.

The interplay of sex, love, and violence occurs frequently throughout Purdy’s writing. Virtually no love between man and woman appears in Purdy’s novels—male-female relationships are either those of a prostitute and a man or a man who rapes women. Purdy does include a number of sexual affairs between men in his works, but these usually end in obsession and violence. In addition, many of the novels involve incest.

Also interwoven in the stories are themes of tyranny, freedom, dominance, and obsessive love. Frequently, the female characters are aggressive and domineering, and often the male characters are passive and dominated. Many of the characters are attempting to find their “freedom” from dominance, but the nature of obsessive love does not permit this.

Finally, in some manner or another, Purdy’s novels all involve a writer within the narrative. In some books, this figure takes on more importance than in others; this device, typical of self-conscious “metafiction,” serves to emphasize the autonomous reality of the fictive world.


Many of the themes, motifs, and preoccupations of his subsequent novels are found in Purdy’s first novel, Malcolm. The orphan motif that occurs so frequently in Purdy’s works plays a vital part in Malcolm. Malcolm (no last name given), the reader is told, belongs nowhere and to nobody. His father has disappeared, and Malcolm’s search for him forms the central psychological structure of the book. The fifteen-year-old Malcolm is sitting on a park bench outside the hotel where he is staying when Mr. Cox, an astrologer, takes an interest in him. He gives Malcolm a series of addresses in order to interest him in “things,” and the ensuing visits to the people who live at the respective addresses form the core of the action in the novel. Malcolm becomes a parody of the picaro, for instead of acting he is acted upon. His main concern is to find his father, but his actions are governed by the tyrannical Mr. Cox and his circle of friends.

Within Mr. Cox’s circle are Madame Girard and Girard Girard, an eccentric billionaire. At one point in the novel, Malcolm is offered a chance to be Girard Girard’s son, but Malcolm tells him he has only one father and Girard Girard cannot take his place. Later, after Malcolm marries Melba, a famous black singer, he believes that he sees his father at a restaurant. Malcolm follows this man into the restroom. The man, however, denies that he is Malcolm’s father and throws Malcolm down, causing Malcolm to hit his head. After this incident, Malcolm, who has deteriorated physically since his marriage, becomes too weak to get out of bed and eventually dies.

Thus, in this first novel, Purdy reveals many of his recurring preoccupations. In addition to the orphan’s search for the father (paralleling the search for identity), Purdy explores the topic of tyranny and the theme of the fatality of a loveless marriage. A concern with the maturation process is also found in Malcolm. Gus, one of Melba’s former husbands, is chosen to help Malcolm mature before his marriage. Gus’s solution to helping Malcolm “mature” is to have Malcolm tattooed and to have him visit a prostitute.

In Malcolm, the characters are constantly questioning the substantiality of their existence; they are two-dimensional, almost comic-book figures. Malcolm is given addresses, not names, and consequently, places and events take primacy over the development of the personality. Malcolm himself has no last name, and when he dies there is no corpse in his coffin. All that is left of Malcolm are three hundred pages of manuscript that he had written, which Madame Girard attempts to organize.

The Nephew

In The Nephew, Purdy turns to the small town of Rainbow Center for his setting and tells a story that superficially resembles a slice of small-town life. Underneath the seemingly placid exterior of Rainbow Center, however, as beneath the surface of the novel, much is happening. The text is surcharged with meanings, and the experience of reading this novel is similar to that of watching a film with the sound track slightly off.

The plot is simple and straightforward. Alma Mason and her brother, Boyd, receive news that their nephew Cliff is missing in action during the Korean War. Cliff, another of Purdy’s orphans, had lived with the Masons. In order to alleviate some of the grief of his death, Alma decides to write a memorial honoring Cliff. The novel focuses on Alma’s attempts to gather material for the writing of Cliff’s memorial. During this process, she discovers many facets of Cliff’s existence of which she had been unaware—particularly that Cliff had hated the town and that he had had a homosexual affair—which lead her to some revelations about herself and her relationship to Boyd and others in the community.

One of Purdy’s concerns that can be noted throughout the novel is the inadequacy of judging people by their actions and their words. Communication is always inadequate and misinterpreted. Alma never does finish her memorial to Cliff, another indication that one can never fully understand another person. By the end of the story, however, Alma does become much more tolerant in her attitude toward what she considers the foibles of others.

Cabot Wright Begins

Like The Nephew, Cabot Wright Begins concerns the attempt to write about another person—in this case, a businessman and rapist named Cabot Wright. Instead of one narrative voice, as in The Nephew, many emerge in Cabot Wright Begins, and this blending and confusion of narrative voices further demonstrate the impossibility of learning the true story about another person.

Purdy’s third novel is an extremely pessimistic indictment and extended meditation on modern American culture. In Cabot Wright Begins, people are controlled by media-think, big business, and popular culture and by all the superficial aspects of modern existence. Feelings, emotions, and actions are all superficial, and even the rape scenes involving Cabot Wright are narrated in a dispassionate manner—much like secondhand violence seen on television or in the cinema. People exist on the screen of the text, and their ability to function in normal human terms is questioned.

Cabot Wright, another orphan, is twenty-six years old during the time of the novel. He is a stockbroker turned rapist. Bernie Gladhart, a used-car salesman, has been cajoled by his wife into writing the great American novel and has decided that a life history of Cabot Wright would be the perfect subject matter. In fact, the tentative title of Bernie’s novel is “Indelible Smudge,” which indicates Purdy’s judgment about American culture at this time. Princeton Keith, the owner of a large publishing house, however, has commissioned Zoe Bickle to write the story in terms of popular fiction. Through a skylight, Zoe literally falls upon Cabot Wright himself, and Cabot offers to help her ghostwrite his biography. In the process of turning his life into popular fiction, however, he becomes alienated from himself. To him, the story does not portray his real self.

Cabot Wright seems to symbolize the attempt of modern men and women to assert their identity through violence. Only through the act of rape can Cabot penetrate the surface of another, but even then he becomes increasingly alienated and less alive. For Cabot, there are no answers.

Eustace Chisholm and the Works

In Eustace Chisholm and the Works, Purdy presents his concept of the sacrificial, violent, and grotesque aspects of love. In many horrific scenes he shows the results of obsessional love. The story revolves around the sexual love Daniel Hawes has for seventeen-year-old Amos Ratcliff. Amos, an illegitimate son, has been rejected by his father and has had incestuous relationships with his cousin (later revealed to be his mother). Daniel attempts to repress his feelings for Amos, but they finally become so overwhelming that he reenlists in the Army to escape. Instead of escaping, however, he permits his love for Amos to be brought to the surface and projected upon his commanding officer, Captain Stadger. During the affair between these two, Captain Stadger becomes increasingly more sadistic until finally he kills Daniel by disemboweling him, then commits suicide. This incident is the first in a series of homosexual blood sacrifices found in Purdy’s novels.

Once again, as in all of Purdy’s previous works, there is an author involved in an attempt to write the story. In this case, Eustace Chisholm is the writer who is attempting to incorporate the story of Amos and Daniel within the context of a larger epic poem that he is writing.

Jeremy’s Version

Purdy’s next novel, Jeremy’s Version, was written as part 1 of a projected trilogy called Sleepers in the Moon-Crowned Valleys. Although Purdy had dealt with orphans, the search for a father figure, and interrelationships within families in his previous works, this was his first novel in which the family matrix formed the basis for the entire work.

Again, there is a writer—in this case, Jeremy Cready—narrating the story being told to him by Uncle Matt. The basic story (which actually occurred more than fifty years before) involves the battle of wills between two strong women, Elvira Summerlad and Winifred Fergus; a divorce case; and the interrelationships of the three sons with one another and with their mother and father. Elvira Summerlad and Wilders Fergus were married, much against the wishes of his sister, Winifred, who thought the marriage was doomed. In a sense, Winifred was right, because Wilders abandoned Elvira and their sons. Winifred, however, goes to Wilders and tells him that since his sons are almost grown, he is needed at home. When he arrives, Elvira starts divorce proceedings against him.

The basic conflict is between Elvira and Winifred for custody of the children. Wilders is indifferent to the whole affair. One of Purdy’s major themes—that of the son confronting the father—occurs during the divorce proceedings, when the gay oldest son, Rick, confronts Wilders. Rick demands that Wilders tell him the reason for his existence since his father has never been around before to teach him—he has only had his mother, who, he claims, has emasculated him. After Elvira wins the divorce case, her second son, Jethro, attempts to shoot her, but Matt saves her and is wounded. A similar shooting scene, between mother and son, occurs again in The House of the Solitary Maggot.

I Am Elijah Thrush

I Am Elijah Thrush is a dreamlike, ornate, and highly stylized book, populated with strange characters and filled with unusual events. More than any of Purdy’s other novels, this book exists in the realm of allegory and symbols. Among the major characters are a famous mime, Elijah Thrush; his great-grandson, a mute, called the Bird of Heaven; Millicent De Frayne, a tyrannical old dowager who retains her youth by drinking the seminal fluid of young men; and Albert Peggs, the black memoirist who tells the story and who, himself, has a bizarre “habit.” In addition, the novel incorporates many elements of mythology in a comic manner, suggesting the debasement of culture in modern America.

As in many of Purdy’s previous novels, the plot in I Am Elijah Thrush involves a person (in this case, Albert Peggs) being hired by someone to write the story. Millicent De Frayne hires Albert to recount the story of Elijah Thrush. Once again, this story involves a clash of wills between two strong people—Millicent and Elijah. For more than fifty years, she has been trying to gain control of Elijah and marry him. Eventually, she succeeds by manipulating Albert, the Bird of Heaven, and Elijah onto her boat, where she finally marries him. Late in the novel, Albert’s “habit” is discovered: He sustains the life of a golden eagle by permitting the eagle to feed upon him. At the wedding feast of Millicent and Elijah, the eagle is served as the entree. After this incident, Albert “becomes” Elijah Thrush.

One of Purdy’s major themes is that of confirming, or finding, an identity. In his novels, there is a plethora of name-changes, mistaken identities, disguises, masquerades, and other such motifs. The dreamlike structure of the narrative suggests that Albert Peggs is attempting to discover his identity by telling this story.

The House of the Solitary Maggot

The House of the Solitary Maggot is part 2 of the series called Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys. The story is reconstructed—this time on a tape recorder—by one of the characters, and, as in part 1 of the series, Jeremy’s Version, the family matrix is the psychological focus in the novel. The story involves Mr. Skegg, the magnate (the “solitary maggot”); Lady Bythewaite; and their three illegitimate sons: Clarence, who is legally “acknowledged” by the father; Owen, who is acknowledged by the mother; and Aiken, who is not acknowledged by either parent until later in the book.

The novel takes place in a dying community called Prince’s Crossing. Owen, the youngest son, hero-worships his brother, Clarence, who goes to New York to become a famous silent-film star. After Clarence leaves, Owen turns to the other older brother, Aiken, whom he also worships. The two become inseparable. Aiken, who himself has no acknowledged father or mother, serves as a father figure to Owen, helping him “mature” by giving him his first shave and taking him to visit a prostitute. After visiting her, Owen loses his sight. Aiken, who has finally been acknowledged by Lady Bythewaite as her long-lost son, buys the Acres, the showplace of the community. When Clarence returns and refuses to accept Aiken as his brother, Aiken, whose pride is hurt, burns down the house and marries the prostitute. This marriage is a failure, and Aiken decides to leave.

Although Aiken has been estranged from Owen, he loves him obsessively. When Aiken goes to say good-bye to Owen and their mother, Owen shoots him. Lady Bythewaite, one of Purdy’s typical strong-willed, castrating women, then shoots Owen. In another of Purdy’s characteristically grotesque scenes, Owen’s eyeballs fall out and Aiken swallows them. While Aiken remains unconscious in the hospital, Clarence returns and wants to be acknowledged as Aiken’s brother. When the unconscious Aiken cannot comply, Clarence slits his own throat. Eventually, Aiken comes to live with his mother. Mr. Skegg acknowledges him as his son and takes care of him in his illness. The story concludes with the death of Aiken, who, in a dreamlike sequence, tries to ride off on a horse with the dead Owen.

In a Shallow Grave

The protagonist of Purdy’s next novel, In a Shallow Grave, is Garnet Montrose, a war hero who has been so badly wounded that he is turned almost inside-out and is the color of mulberry juice. Garnet seeks “applicants” to take messages from him to the Widow Rance, whom he wishes to court, but the applicants are so appalled by Garnet’s appearance that they cannot accept the job. Finally, Quintus, a black adolescent, shows up by accident at Garnet’s house and accepts the position. Quintus’s responsibilities are to read to Garnet and to rub his feet. Later, a man named Daventry shows up. Even though he is not an applicant, he takes the position of messenger to the Widow Rance. Within this narrative structure, Purdy pursues many of his recurring themes.

One of the primary scenes involves a communion among Garnet, Quintus, and Daventry. Garnet is about to have his property taken away, but Daventry says that he will save Garnet’s land and property if Garnet will commune with him. Daventry takes his knife, slits open his chest, and the three of them drink his blood. Later, they discover that Garnet’s property has been saved by the Veterans Administration, who heard of his plight and paid the mortgage. The wounding and shedding of blood, along with the religious connotations of the scene, seem to indicate that language is inadequate for portraying emotions, that the only way to “love” another person is to shed blood for him or her.

Again, homosexual love appears in the novel, for Daventry and Garnet fall in love. They consummate their love in the dance hall where Garnet goes to dance by himself and relive the moments in the past when he was “normal.” With Garnet’s permission, Daventry marries the Widow Rance, but on his wedding night, he is swept up by a strong wind, smashed against a tree, and killed.

Narrow Rooms

Narrow Rooms is a story about the love-hate relationship between Roy Sturtevant (the renderer) and Sidney De Lakes. Roy Sturtevant had been in love with Sidney since the eighth grade, until Sidney slapped him publicly and humiliated him; from that time, Roy has been planning his revenge. The story opens after Sidney has returned from prison, where he served time for killing Brian McFee. He finds a job as keeper of Gareth Vaisey, who has been injured in a fall from a horse. Sidney and Gareth fall in love and have an affair, but Roy Sturtevant still exercises a strange power over them.

In the central scene in the novel, after Roy and Sidney have a sexual encounter, Roy commands Sidney to crucify him on the barn door and then bring the body of Brian McFee to view the crucifixion. Roy, still alive, is taken down from the barn door and carried into the house. Sidney and Roy then pledge their love for each other, and Gareth, jealous, shoots them both. Subsequently, Gareth also dies. Though the subject matter of Narrow Rooms is largely sensational, the novel continues Purdy’s exploration of the destructive nature of obsessive love.

Mourners Below

In Mourners Below, Purdy returns to the theme of hero worship. Seventeen-year-old Duane Bledsoe is mourning the death of his two half brothers, Justin and Douglas, who have been killed in the war. Eugene Bledsoe, the father, with whom Duane lives, is aloof and psychologically distant. The central episode in the novel occurs when Duane goes to a fancy-dress ball at the mansion of Estelle Dumont (who had been Justin’s lover), and Estelle seduces him. After the ball, another of Purdy’s rape scenes occurs when Duane is sexually assaulted by two men along the roadside. During the brief affair between Duane and Estelle, Estelle conceives a child, also named Justin. At the end of the story, Duane is given the child to rear, and Eugene states that it is Duane’s destiny to rear a son.

Although this novel incorporates many of Purdy’s familiar conceptions, it appears to be much more optimistic about the human condition than his previous novels. For example, Eugene and Duane do become reconciled in many ways, and there are many indications that Duane will make a good parent for the child. Furthermore, many of the grotesque and sadistic aspects of love are absent in this book. The men and the women in the story are not the tyrannical types found in previous works; they exhibit much more normal motivation. Mourners Below seems to indicate a new phase in Purdy’s development, for in this novel he emphasizes the hopeful qualities of love and human existence.

On Glory’s Course

The search for a lost son plays a crucial role in On Glory’s Course. Adele Bevington, the main character in the novel, has had an illegitimate son taken away from her and placed for adoption. The rest of the novel revolves around her quest for her lost son. One of the wounded veterans living in Fonthill, the location of the novel, believes that he knows the identity of Adele’s son—he is a soldier who has been gravely wounded in the war and is now residing at the Soldiers’ Home, barely alive and unable to respond to any communication. Adele attempts to prove that this soldier, Moorbrook, is her son, but by the end of the novel, neither Adele nor the reader is certain about Moorbrook’s identity. Once again, Purdy’s recurring motif of the search for a father figure is woven into the text of the novel.

In the Hollow of His Hand

In the Hollow of His Hand relates the kidnapping of a boy, Chad Coultas, by Decatur, an Ojibwa Indian. Decatur is actually the father of the boy and wishes to rear him as an Indian; however, Lew Coultas, the man who has brought up Chad, wishes to recapture him and take him “home.” The mother of Chad, Eva Lewis, had not even realized that Decatur was the father until he returned home from the military and began taking Chad on rides after school. She then remembered that she had, indeed, had a one-day affair with Decatur years before the action in the novel begins.

During the attempt to find Chad, the town of Yellow Brook is awakened to its small-town foibles and provincial attitudes, and once again Purdy reveals the darker side of small-town life and values. This novel is darkly satiric and deals with Purdy’s attempts to create an almost mythological construct of his obsession with the search for an identity within the context of the family. Yet In the Hollow of His Hand is also an extremely humorous novel, delving into the souls of small-town America and American culture.

Garments the Living Wear

Set in Manhattan, Garments the Living Wear opens with Jared Wakeman, an actor and organizer of a theater group facing a desperate situation. Not only has his benefactor, Peg Shawbridge, almost run out of money, his actors have been decimated by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which Purdy’s characters refer to simply as the Plague. Even Des Cantrell, whom Jared refers to as his soul mate, shows the first signs of the illness. The situation radically changes when Edward Hennings, an aged financial wizard and Peg’s former lover, arrives with his young androgynous bride, Estrallita. Edward desires Jared, luring him with the dual attractions of money for his theatrical endeavors and the mysterious Estrallita.

Purdy imbues the novel with an aura of myth and mystery as Edward seemingly cures Des. This atmosphere is reinforced by the appearance of Jonas Hakluyt, an ex-convict turned evangelist with messianic overtones. The novel combines humor and psychological realism, myth, and magic as Purdy’s characters struggle to survive in a world where both people and events are unpredictable and reality is frequently overshadowed by illusion.

Out with the Stars

Out with the Stars revolves around a group of socially intertwined figures. Abner Blossom, with the support of his talented protégé, Val Sturgis, has emerged from his retirement to compose an opera based on a mysterious libretto that was found in a “parlor” where young men indulge in orgies. The libretto is based on the life of Cyrus Vane, a photographer who specialized in nude studies of young African American men. Vane’s wife, Madame Petrovna, is bitterly opposed to production of the opera and will go to any lengths to stop it. A secondary theme in the novel deals with corruption and the loss of innocence of Sturgis and his roommate, Hugh, as they drift deeper into the exotic world of Vane and Blossom. Purdy vividly explores both racial and sexual prejudice in Out with the Stars.

Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue

In Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, Carrie Kinsella, an elderly woman who has lived a dull and uneventful existence, attempts to understand the life and death of her daughter, Gertrude, a famous and flamboyant artist. During this search, she encounters a series of eccentric characters who influenced and were influenced by Gertrude. Purdy explores the nature of love and relationships as Carrie struggles to accept the fact that she and Gertrude failed to love each other. Like most of Purdy’s novels, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue presents a shadowy world full of pretense and ambiguity. Purdy’s language and symbolism mirror this world, which is often distorted, hiding more than it reveals.

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James Purdy Short Fiction Analysis


Purdy, James (Amos)