James Purdy

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Purdy, James (Vol. 4)

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Purdy, James 1923–

Purdy, a masterful American novelist and short story writer, writes dark fiction about narcissism and the cruelty of love. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

For an author who uses dialogue so tellingly in his novels and stories, James Purdy is strangely inept in his two plays…. [There] are not even flamboyant and inventive moments—as there certainly are in the fiction—to distract me from the sense that nothing is going on. Cracks …, is an amorphous play in which an old woman, through a dream or a visitation, is assured that, despite pain, life goes on; this is apparently comfort for the kind of fear the child displays in his desire to have closed the "cracks" through which "the zephyrs of death" blow. Children Is All is a longer play in which Edna Cartwright waits for the return of her convict son, but she can only recognize him by an act—cradling his head in her lap as he dies—while she calls him stranger. Much of Purdy's best work deals with the way men remain close strangers to one another, but his plays use that favorite theme without illuminating it; there is more dramatic invention in Malcolm and the short stories than there is in either of the plays.

Gerald Weales, in his The Jumping-Off Place: American Drama in the 1960's (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1969 by Gerald Weales), Macmillan, 1969, pp. 211-12.

In the world in which [Purdy's] Malcolm finds himself, sense is continually dissolving in contradictions. There is nothing stable enough or meaningful enough around him to enable him properly speaking to 'begin'. The word recurs as Malcolm constantly thinks or hopes that this time 'life is actually beginning' as a new social situation opens up to him. Yet the feeling we are left with is that he never really does begin; it is as though the visible, audible parts of him are not really his own but borrowed for and from the occasion. He passes through changing scenes but, instead of thickening into identity and consolidating a real self, his life is really a long fading. This paradox of passing through life without, as it were, beginning to live Purdy explores at length in his most searching novel, where the problem is written into the title, Cabot Wright Begins. But at this stage we can make the point that if Malcolm never begins neither does his story ever really begin—another way in which Purdy seems to want to remind us that when we finished the book we only have texture without substance….

Cabot Wright Begins … gathers together all the themes opened up or touched on in Purdy's earlier work and explores them with a subtlety and humour and power which makes this, to my mind, not only Purdy's most profound novel but one of the most important American novels since the war. Cabot Wright is a Yale man who gets bored with Wall Street and his wife and who, after an unusual cure from a strange doctor, becomes a relentless rapist. Put that way the novel might seem to promise the sort of glamorous pornography one associates with a best seller. Yet it contains no detailed sexual scenes at all and it transpires that Cabot Wright can only think of 'boredom' as the motive of his rapes, not lust. More to the point, over a third of the novel is spent in discussing the problems connected with writing a book, the biography of Cabot Wright. Chapter Seven of Purdy's novel is entitled 'Cabot...

(This entire section contains 2255 words.)

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Wright Begins', while the first six chapters are concerned with the people involved in the decision to attempt to make a book out of his life. The frame has never intruded so far into a Purdy novel before….

Just as the Invisible Man conveys the relief of finally dropping out of all 'mythic contact with the social' into his unlocatable refuge in a border area, so in this novel Purdy has demonstrated the need to escape from all the supposititious 'selves' fostered by those illusory contacts. The question again arises—is there a third realm beyond the alternatives of submission to social fabrications or escape by flowing away? Can a 'non-self' have an identity? In rejecting all this non-humanity of society, in what sense does Cabot Wright achieve real humanity? One answer that Purdy clearly intends is—simply by achieving the ability to laugh. He inserts a long rhetorical paragraph on laughter as the supreme consolation; it ends: 'Meaning there is no meaning but the laughter of the moment made it almost worth while. That's all it's about. We was here, finally laughed.' Perhaps you are only human as long as you are laughing; some such desperation is implicit in the sudden unchecked feeling of this paragraph.

Tony Tanner, "Frames Without Pictures," in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 85-108.

If Petronius could pull it off, and Federico Fellini could pull it off, why not James Purdy? The identification of imperial Rome and the Empire State is, after all, a commonplace of High Camp culture. So enter Elijah Thrush, mime, poet, painter—part prophet of unspeakable corruption and eternal youth, part white, fungoid, mucous taint.

In this American Satyricon [I am Elijah Thrush], scented with Kashmir saffron and running with mascara, satire must look after itself. For the fable itself floats free into an exotic, Yellow Book fantasy world, or Firbankian romp, of unscrupulous oil millionairess, Millicent de Frayne, her mahogany buck of a spy or go-between, and antique lover (Pierrot, Narcissus, The Most Beautiful Man in the World), himself in love with his mute great-grandson, the Bird of Heaven, "a young boy with flowing raven locks, haunting wild Indian eyes, and a mouth of brilliant vermilion".

Yet what seems to ring out from the pungent flavours of this mixed curry is the old, tormented cry of hurt love—the American bitch goddess in perpetual heat and her Negro Adonis….

[Perhaps], after all, this Thrush is not only a Satyricon, but an American parable. Set in a fairy-tale city of New York, this dark exotic jewel, as if fathered by Cocteau on F. Scott Fitzgerald, seems like the pianist with dark circles in his moon-pale face and a geranium in his buttonhole, flashing looks of malevolent hatred at the audience "when he was not playing Cécile Chaminade or Eric Coates".

"Golden Suction," in The Times Literary Supplement, November 3, 1972, p. 1305.

[I Am Elijah Thrush] is a stylish novel in which the manner is very well suited to subject matter, and the comic tone is judged to a nicety. In general it is Firbankish, an exuberantly gay exercise in the bizarre, a series of elegant acrobatics and graceful gestures which have about them a certain iridescence like the shimmer of peacock feathers. Bird analogies are appropriate because the theme of this work is the predatory nature of love, and here the characters behave like ravenous birds. Albert Pegg falls for Elijah and the plot tumbles the reader through a coruscating succession of improbable turns of fortune, of kidnapping and counter-kidnapping, to a remarkable comic climax at sea.

J. A. Cuddon, in Books and Bookmen, March, 1973, p. 79.

Malcolm, James Purdy's first novel, was published in 1959 and has not suffered from want of acclaim. The praise has been richly deserved, for Purdy may be the most skillful black-humorist around. No one, however, has given Purdy credit for the full achievement of Malcolm. The novel generally is applauded for its wit, style, and deft handling of the disturbing themes of loneliness and lack of identity in the bizarre nightmare of modern existence. In addition, Purdy's gift for sharp and sweeping satire rakes such targets as marriage, art and artists, sex, status, and adolescence. The last is a tempting critical morsel, for it makes the novel classifiable as a bildungsroman. Without question Malcolm is a story of a young man confronting adulthood, for initiation is its central theme. The novel has been called "an allegory of growing up." However, Purdy has not written merely another novel of adolescence in a century already overstocked. Instead, he has offered us a sport on that type, using the genre to satirize it, with a wry approach to form as well as content. Viewed this way, the satire of an already cheerless book is deepened, and the blackness of its humor becomes more pervasive, more complete, and more grim….

Malcolm himself is a parody of the typical initiate. Such youths, no matter how primitive or unsophisticated, are usually bright young men, sensitive, quick and alert. But not Malcolm. His most consistent response is to fall asleep at crucial moments, more reminiscent of Stan Laurel than Stephen Dedalus. His single diversion is to sit in his bathrobe and listen to the ocean roar in his sea shells. Billy Budd's illiteracy was all the more inspirational because it made him appealingly ingenuous. Malcolm's stupidity is so complete it arouses distrust, not love or affection. The ultimate question is whether he has any mind at all….

The innocent, saintly, and Christ-like qualities of Malcolm are too hard to miss to be taken seriously….

One of the novel's major themes seems embodied in the character of Madame Girard, for she shows how much more important style is than content. Style at least equips one to survive, at times to survive well, whereas someone like Malcolm who clings to substances which are often fictions seems assured of defeat….

Perhaps … the handling of Malcolm's death makes the extent of the parody impossible to deny…. The reference at his death to "Malcolm's short long life" … tends to turn the solid meaning of Francis Macomber's short happy life inside out. Finally, a lavish funeral is held. However, the coroner and the undertaker contend that no corpse was in the casket, that nobody (no body?) was buried in the ceremony. The only proof that Malcolm died rests ultimately with Madame Girard, and "in time her story became full of evasions"…. Thus, if nothing proves that Malcolm is dead, nothing, likewise, guarantees that Malcolm ever lived, in any sense of the word. Instead of the novel being an allegory of a young everyman, it is more an allegory of no man—the way Purdy sees modern man. "But nobody could deny that there had been a ceremony"…. Perhaps that is the way we must look at Malcolm, as ceremony, a texture with the substance deliberately removed. In a way the novel is like a whopping practical joke, because we are not supposed to hunt for meaning in a practical joke. Like life in the modern world, only the humor is important.

Charles Stetler, "Purdy's 'Malcolm': Allegory of No Man," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1973, pp. 91-9.

A prominent feature in the microcosm of James Purdy's six novels and numerous short stories is the relationship between a young innocent and the corrupt adult world in which he must make his way. Both terms used in this description need to be taken with some latitude: the youth is always "innocent" to one degree or another in terms of his knowledge of the world, but he is almost never lacking in toughness, resilience, and cunning; as he learns the harsh rules, the rough grounds, and the almost pitiless odds of the game, he copes at each stage, even if early death is frequently the goal. Nor are the mentors "corrupt" in any simple sense of the term as suggested by the villain in a melodrama: they are former innocents themselves, reenacting a shadow play of their own initiation perhaps in a vain effort to communicate with their own lost innocence. And finally, one cannot construe this theme with their own lost innocence. And finally, one cannot construe this theme as the statement of an evil practice of a morally depraved minority, which might somehow have been avoided; it must be taken as the ordinary process of living in the world as we know it….

All of the innocents are bewildered about ultimate meanings; they have renounced childhood religious faith and have found no viable substitute explanation of reality or standard for behavior. The innocent almost invariably keeps notes or a journal in an attempt, first of all, to record his experiences, and secondly to find a track through the wilds by means of written meditations….

In [the picaresque] tradition, gross and spectacular crime is generally eschewed, but the whole range of petty crime is the stream in which the protagonists float, and "honor among thieves," or some comradely code of standards whereby one has stable ways of relating to peers, is the prevailing moral code, quite outside dominant respectable codes of the day in most cases. The whole social ambiance of pickpockets, smugglers, thieves, bawds, pimps, prostitutes, card sharps, pardoners, mountebanks, and cheats corresponds only very roughly to "the insulted and the injured" in Purdy, but the parallel is there—and this is the same subculture in which Huckleberry Finn threads his way, in a book Purdy admires strongly….

Although all his novels present a rich train of variations on the theme of the picaresque corruption of innocents, it is his masterful novella, "63: Dream Palace," that gives the most balanced treatment of all the factors in short compass.

Frank Baldanza, "James Purdy on the Corruption of Innocents," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 315-30.


Purdy, James (Vol. 2)