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Purdy, James 1923–
Purdy, an American novelist and short story writer, pursues the bizarre, lonely, and scandalous relationships between the people of his black comedies. Among his novels are Malcolm, The Nephew, and Cabot Wright Begins. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)
With the publication of Malcolm ...
(The entire section contains 4638 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Purdy, James 1923–
Purdy, an American novelist and short story writer, pursues the bizarre, lonely, and scandalous relationships between the people of his black comedies. Among his novels are Malcolm, The Nephew, and Cabot Wright Begins. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)
With the publication of Malcolm (1959), James Purdy has left no doubt that he is a writer of integrity with a voice of his own. In America today, when most novels seem to be hurriedly manufactured with standardized patterns and interchangeable paragraphs, Purdy's work stands out as something of a rarity. He also has a highly personal vision of his own—bitter, ironic, and grotesque….
Much of Purdy's unusual achievement is made possible by his flat, bald style. It is precise and deceptively simple. He uses few of the rhetorical devices available to him in English; he is even sparing of adjectives and adverbs. In Malcolm especially his prose is terse, almost naked, sometimes matter-of-fact, dry. His individual voice comes through in a strange twist of a phrase here, an odd choice of a word there, and in a peculiar tension that vibrates from even his least tightly structured paragraphs.
Purdy's vision of the world is equally exclusive. His characters move on a stage as barren and starkly lighted as that of Samuel Beckett. The sociological backdrop is barely suggested, and the customary props of psychological motivation are most conspicuous by their absence. Purdy's people have little or no past. We never learn how they came to be what they are; they simply are. The objects they use, the streets they walk upon, the houses they inhabit, even the clothes they wear seem to have no immediate or organic relationship to these people. They are cut off from the physical world. And they are even isolated from themselves in that they raise only the most superficial questions when faced by a crucial decision.
This is not to say, however, that these people are not real; they are—very much so—in a strangely moving if grotesque way. For we see them so clearly defined in such a hard, fine light, as we can never hope to see the people we know in a thing-cluttered world in which each person is a function of his job, what he owns, and what he feels other people want him to be. Like Ionesco, he makes "specialists" of his characters: they speak clichés of clichés; blandness is driven to the point of intensity; and the most gratuitous of acts becomes suddenly a commonplace….
Purdy is without doubt a serious and significant writer. He has created a world of his own. It is a small, sad world, but it is also very close to an accurate image of life in America today.
Paul Herr, "The Small, Sad World of James Purdy," in Chicago Review, Autumn-Winter, 1960, pp. 19-25.
The hero of a Purdy story is a misfit who, thrown back upon his own resources, is afraid to live with himself and more afraid to leave himself. He wants to escape from the pool of Narcissus but cannot. Eventually he drowns…. Perhaps he resembles Salinger more than any of the Gothic writers: like him he depends largely on everyday dialogue, very little on description. His heroes are, for the most part, people we see on the bus or at work; odd—but not very odd—things lurk in their "normal" worlds. And these things grow in size until they break down order. (p. 44) …
Purdy … writes about nonrecognizable nature and city life. He spends less time on visual description. His prose is artless, highly flexible, fluid…. Purdy concentrates on incident or effect—he uses his simple style to lure us into the horror, so much so that we are not really aware of the style as instrument. (pp. 160-61)
Irving Malin, in his New American Gothic (© 1962 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, pp. 44, 160-61.
The assumption is that all of us, in so far as Purdy really has the word on all of us, live in a house divided. For the most part the interior room, the "real" one, the one where we live, is sealed off from the ones in which we meet other people, talk to them, desire them, marry them, kill them, construct them in our own image. Once in a while we open the door ever so slightly and let someone look in, but what he sees there is a reflection. "Mon semblable, mon frère," he cries and we say "Who, me?" and slam the door in his face. The need to open the door … and the impossibility of being recognized is the subject of most of Purdy's work—the early short stories in Color of Darkness and the later ones in Children Is All, the novella 63: Dream Palace, the play Children Is All and the two novels Malcolm and The Nephew.
Since the man in the interior room is so hard to get to, since he can be seen infrequently and then only obliquely, the suspicion begins to grow that he is not there at all. He becomes a kind of silly putty that assumes the shape of whatever it lies against. He becomes whatever another person, in a scramble to escape his own facelessness, wants him to be….
[Purdy's work] ranges from the dusty macabre of 63: Dream Palace to the grotesque and sometimes funny comedy of Malcolm to the deceptive matter-of-factness of The Nephew. There is a great range, too, in quality. His stories often appear to be slices, slabs cut out of something not quite perceivable. Ordinarily, he arrests his characters at a moment when drunkenness, uncontrollable garrulity, fear, some strong emotion brings a revelation which is, usually, oblique, suggestive, amorphous. The longer fiction—except for The Nephew—seems like a string of such moments. "Texture is all," Madame Girard says in Malcolm, "substance nothing." Her sentence might be a description of most of Purdy's work. At his weakest, his texture is only mannerism and his revelations become banal or vaguely "poetic" in the ugly sense of the word. When he is more effective, his arrested moments become vivid enough to suggest substance or to hide its absence. When he is better still—when Malcolm, running from the dead Gus, drops and breaks the testimonial shaving mug that Madame Rosita has awarded him for his sexual performance—the moment becomes a vehicle that carries us directly into some kind of truth. At his best, texture and substance become one. So far, that has happened only in The Nephew.
Gerald Weales, "No Face and No Exit: The Fiction of James Purdy and J. P. Donleavy" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 143-54.
Purdy is a naturalist of unusual subtlety and a fantasist of unusual clarity. These two strains cross repeatedly in his fiction, for his subject is most often the enigmatic borderland between innocence and depravity, and his characters are generally people who are cut off from the more or less normal life of humanity—orphans, invalids, Negroes, spinsters, homosexuals, failed artists, and other lost souls who have retreated into the weird logic of their illusions and privations, their pain and cruelty. Sometimes this logic is handled with great wit and charm, as in Purdy's iridescent novel Malcolm, a sort of high-camp version of adolescent initiation, more often with chilling objectivity as in his laconic tales of dead marriages and emotionally starved children, or in his small masterpiece of underclass sadism and effete corruption—"63: Dream Palace."… Cabot Wright Begins strikes out at the contemporary world with a vengeance, almost as though all of Purdy's hatred of it, which he had been suppressing for the sake of his art, had suddenly boiled up and spilled over….
The first two thirds or so of Cabot Wright Begins is a cool, mordant, and deadly accurate satire on American values, as good as anything we have had since the work of Nathanael West. The deliberateness and subtlety of Purdy's stories have gone into creating a gallery of characters … [who] function as credible and telling caricatures of the blithering grotesqueness of our moral vices and sexual follies. Through a marvelously flexible, yet clearly drawn plot line, moreover, Purdy keeps the narrative steadily on the track of its subject. But having sprung his indignation, Purdy eventually allows it to get out of hand. Losing the objectivity of his art, he continues to pour it on and pour it on: characters and situations become inflated and pointless with exaggerations, and the comic themes give way to a cackling and obscene rhetoric…. [This] is not to deny that a writer who takes on our culture today is hard put to maintain his wits amid the witlessness of his subject. But much of Cabot Wright Begins is evidence that it can be done, that the detachment and deliberateness of Purdy's art are as indispensable in exploring the awfulness of our mores as they have been to him in touching the "something awful" in each man's life.
Theodore Solotaroff, "The Deadly James Purdy" (1964), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 156-60.
It appears to be generally believed that James Purdy is an important American writer. The publication of his third novel, Cabot Wright Begins, offers an occasion for dissent. Purdy is a terrible writer, and worse than that, he is a boring writer. The only reason for reviewing bad books is to attempt the correction of opinion, one of the traditional functions of criticism, which has fallen into abeyance in our sleazy literary age….
The contrast between all these incandescent words [of critical praise] and the lumpish reality of Purdy's books is shocking. The early stories are ineptly written, but several of them have a raw power that comes from Purdy's imaging domestic hostility and potential violence as overt violence. Thus a son kicks his father in the groin, a husband beats his wife bloody at a party, a boy breaks the neck of his younger brother, and (in "Why Can't They Tell You Why?," the best story in Color of Darkness) a mother drives her son literally mad.
The later stories, in Children Is All, have lost even this power. In its place there is only verbal violence, as in a story that ends with a virtuous wife's rejecting the advances of her wealthy father-in-law with "You whoring old goat!"…
The novels are not novels but contrived sequences of visits to grotesque households in quest of someone's identity, and before long Purdy becomes bored with the contrivance and ignores it. "Texture is all, substance nothing," says Madame Girard in Malcolm, and her creator appears to agree with her. In Malcolm the hero visits, in quest of his own identity, a series of exotic addresses given him by a peripatetic astrologer, then marries and dies. The book is an inconsequential Candide, or, more accurately, a pretentious Candy. In many respects it is an expansion of "63: Dream Palace," in the genre of sad farce rather than pathos-bathos. Its predominant style is the sort of cuteness that Truman Capote has made peculiarly his own….
Ultimately, Purdy is neither a novelist nor a fiction writer. He is a social satirist, and at times a funny and effective one. The last third of Cabot Wright Begins suggests that he missed the true vocation for which his combination of passion and bad taste qualify him, that of sick comic.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Correction of Opinion," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 254-58.
Many novelists would have expanded the material of James Purdy's Eustace Chisholm and the Works to a novel three times the length. But Purdy is too conscious an artist for this. His appalling fable of the impossibility of love, with its violent depiction of the frustration and martyrdom of a romantic homosexual passion, and its brutally comic presentation of heterosexual promiscuity and abortion, is conceived and executed with the most elaborate artistry. The discrepancy between extravagant action or feeling and elegantly fashioned form gives its characteristic quality to Purdy's work. Only the poise and coolness of the style make this nightmare vision tolerable….
There is something inimical in this extreme elegance and precision of technique applied to such violent material, and though as a stylist Purdy is superb, he more than once suggests the familiar tone of the sentimental cynic. His art reveals itself a little too consistently; the shocking elements are played off a little too coolly, and it isn't always easy to distinguish his genuine imagination from a kind of sophisticated voyeurism…. Nevertheless, the book has brilliance and originality.
Rachel Trickett, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1968, pp. 443-44.
In the middle of May , James Purdy's Eustace Chisholm and the Works was published. I was already familiar with Purdy's earlier novels and short stories, which—although they have not received all the attention due them—stand in the very front rank of modern writing. Yet I was scarcely prepared for the violently compressed power, the exhausting vehemence, the almost superhuman exorcism of the wanton evil that destroys many innocents that set Purdy's new effort far apart from the whining and the cocktail chatter that often passes for serious fiction. I was staggered by Purdy's tale. (p. 5)
Purdy is God's angry man, perhaps the last literary exponent in a decadent time of the thunderous Protestant revivalist tradition…. Purdy singlehandedly reinvigorates a tradition turned effete; in every work he raises his voice against those who fail to realize their full spiritual potential as human beings.
Swiftian is really the only adjective that can be satisfactorily applied to Purdy's work…. Despite [the] appalling subject matter, [Eustace Chisholm and the Works] is a highly (indeed, the "hip" element might object, an almost obsessively) moral work, for Purdy is not interested in exploiting the morbid or sensational possibilities of his subject matter; he deals with frightening violations of the "natural" order so that he may stress the sterility of American life. He forces us to become acquainted with those who are driven by unnaturally inspired lusts to destroy rather than to create. (pp. 19-21)
Purdy is a bitter writer. He is bitter about the fate of sensitive people at the mercy of a cold, arrogant, grasping society. He is trying to impress upon people who constantly shy away from the truth about themselves that they really do not like other people very much. (p. 22)
Purdy is an extremely serious, but never a pompous artist. He has forged from colloquial American speech a language of unique compression and power, and he has the extraordinary ability to treat the most unpleasant subject matter with a deftness of touch that fascinates the reader even as it appalls him. No one since Dickens has created works distinguished by the complexity and scintillating wit of Purdy's. His invention is prodigal; his stories abound in characters and memorable incidents; his humor is devastating. As a few of the most perceptive critics—Dame Edith Sitwell, David Daiches, Ihab Hassan, R. W. B. Lewis—have recognized, his is the voice that will survive our time, if anything does. (p. 24)
Warren French, in his Season of Promise: Spring Fiction, 1967 (reprinted from Season of Promise, by Warren French, by permission of the University of Missouri Press; copyright 1968 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1968.
Purdy's anguished people are being kept alive by an undercurrent of yearning, yearning for immortality, eternal youth, a reward for life, the return of a dead son or timeless love: "everything under the sun."… Purdy's "disconnected" people stagger through life with an incurable sense of loss borne in quiet desperation. Yet at the same time, in a secret chamber of their heart, remains a belief in the pot of gold, no matter how much daily evidence there is to the contrary. (pp. 4-5)
James Purdy has a gift for making places and objects spring to life in the primeval, animistic way of great poets. Seats of the movie theater "do not act as if they were required to hold you off the floor," buildings lean forward "as if to bend down to the street," the silence of the city at night has "many little contractions and movements like the springs of a poorly constructed machine," and the "not-right house" on 63 Street "is all stuffed up" and somehow gives the eerie feeling that anyone entering it will never leave, dead or alive. (p. 7)
James Purdy leads us through a dark world, a world lit up by his insight. The soul of action is completely at one with the meaning of it. Their integration is so perfect that it has the finality of a historic act never to be undone. He makes each word live with his personal breath of life. (pp. 12-13)
James Purdy's work is about love. Love between mother and child, brother and brother or sister, husband and wife, aunt and nephew, friends, neighbors, strangers. People stumbling, groping toward each other, and failing. Always failing cruelly, tragically, when the very survival of the beloved depends on love. (p. 50)
Bettina Schwarzchild, in her The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy (reprinted from The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy, by Bettina Schwarzchild, by permission of the author and the University of Missouri Press; copyright 1968 by Bettina Schwarzchild), University of Missouri Press, 1968.
[The] work of James Purdy … constitutes a recurrent Ur-fable of the lonely, desperate orphan, cut off from any family intercourse in childhood, who spends his brief career "playing house" with intense, doomed seriousness, frustrated in his search for metaphorical family relationships that will provide the authority, security, and warmth of familial feeling.
Frank Baldanza, "Playing House for Keeps With James Purdy," in Contemporary Literature (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 11, No. 4, Autumn, 1970, pp. 488-510.
James Purdy's novel ["Jeremy's Version"] the first installment of a projected work of some length, traverses times and places resonantly familiar to us from Ross Lockridge, Sherwood Anderson and Charles Burchfield. It is a novel which, in a sense, has been written many times before; practically every scene is wonderfully nostalgic rather than new. This effect is deliberate and masterfully exploited. The significant dreams are the ones that return….
Most of the tensions in the book are between characters who wish to be away from each other and yet are ambiguously attached to each other. Repulsion seems to be as firm a cement as love. The rifts, when they come, are violent. Life, for all its longings for other forms and other places, clings fearfully to its predicaments at home. Life, Mr. Purdy seems to say, prefers the sleep of habit, in which one is free to dream, to the wakeful decisiveness of shaping rather than being shaped by the world. All the characters in "Jeremy's Version" are trying to wake up and live, they tell themselves; their tragedy is that they do not know what this means, and remain as bewildered as children on a dull afternoon who want something, but do not know what they want.
Guy Davenport, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 15, 1970, pp. 4, 61.
James Purdy is always a surprise, and readers who have followed his recent fiction may find [Jeremy's Version, the] first volume of a planned trilogy something of a puzzle. His theme remains familiar—the fate of the innocent, exploited and defiled in our lost Eden. Admirers of The Nephew will also be familiar with the setting, an Ohio town here called Boutflour. However, little else is anything but nervy and, again, if the word is used in its strongest and most positive sense, "disturbing."
The Fergus family, Wilfred the irresponsible father, Elvira the spirited mother, along with the three sons, Rick, Jethro and Rory, are handled as melodramatically as if characters in a soap opera—which may be the point. For how else can tragedy be realized? We are reduced to ironic, absurd wind-up toys, no fate to be resigned to, no gods to believe in. Our very shouts of despair, or, contrarily, our presumptions of posture and protest, are equally futile; the one reality we can seize, if not prevent, must be the domestic mishaps, the emotional, cathartic dramatization of the banal daily life which is our stage, our prison, and our Hell.
The Antioch Review (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXX, Nos. 3 & 4, 1970–71; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXX, Nos. 3 & 4, 1970–71, p. 458.
Mr. Purdy's admirers, who may have been expecting the second volume of the trilogy he began in 1970 with Jeremy's Version, are likely to find this very brief book [I Am Elijah Thrush] puzzling. Jeremy's Version was not entirely successful, but it worked in interesting directions, and showed us what seemed to be a developing concern on Mr. Purdy's part for the substance of the human issues which have always lurked beneath his magical surfaces. I Am Elijah Thrush, far from being the second installment of Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys, is a reversion to the free-flowing, explosive, but ultimately rather thin expressionism of his earliest fictions, 63: Dream Palace and Malcolm, and as such is something of a disappointment….
Mr. Purdy is and has been a fantasist, despite the creeping realism of some of his short stories. His writing is clearly an outgrowth of the uniquely American strain of comic-nihilistic fantasy which sprang from Nathaniel Hawthorne's guilty Puritan nightmares and bloomed in the 1930s at the hands of Nathanael West. Unfortunately, as satire has gradually been overwhelmed by the absurdity of mid-century life and this dark fantasy has spread and rooted itself in our art, Mr. Purdy's fiction, shocking and revolutionary in the beginning, has come to seem conservative and familiar.
This novel (or novella, to be accurate, since it is scarcely longer than 100 pages) is gory enough, perhaps even more macabre than Purdy usually lets himself get; yet compared to other current books like Malamud's The Tenants it is gentle, and compared to current movies it is absolutely demure. Too, Purdy's polymorphous-perverse sexuality, though it permeates this book as it does practically everything he has written, pales into ingenuousness next to the meticulous concupiscence of Establishment writing. And in an era in which controversy seems to be the lifeblood of literature. Purdy eschews mention of politics, war and ecology, and handles the issue of racism with such a soft touch that one is scarcely aware of the protagonist's color….
[Where] the younger James Purdy took us by surprise, the maturing writer of the 1970s does not, not because his effects are any less imaginative but because they are not, in this novel at least, any more so….
The crippling flaw is shallowness. Mr. Purdy, who had seemed in his last two novels to be working more deeply, has gone back to his earlier concern for surfaces, willing again to devote himself to the creation of marvelously complicated designs which are—too often—unrelated to man and therefore, ultimately, without interest.
Robert Boyd, "A Fantasy Out at Elbows," in Nation, May 15, 1972, pp. 635-36.
Purdy has never, it seems to me, been done justice by many of the leading contemporary critics and one reason, it may be, is that they simply don't know how to read his work properly….
We can say straightaway that [I Am Elijah Thrush] centers on various kinds of parasitism, vampirism, sponging, addictions and habits; the appropriation of some vital part of a person—semen or soul, blood or youth—by a resolute predator. We keep encountering the feeder and the fed, host and guest, the devourer and the devoured…. Love, here as so often in Purdy's work, tends to be a sickness rather than a satisfaction. His world is full of love, but love which takes distorted forms, failing, or being frustrated, in what might be true attachments. Everywhere there are annihilating failures of recognition, leaving us with a sense of lonely incomplete identities vaporizing back into the void, unfinished because unloving or unloved. Here then is a manifestly serious theme—people living off each other without loving each other—as serious in Purdy as in Hawthorne and James….
From the start, Purdy's work has revealed an intense awareness of all that can go grievously and damagingly wrong in the family unit. He has portrayed unparented children, unchilded parents, the unreal father, the mother who possesses or relinquishes at the wrong times. And in the absence of an actual family he has shown all manner of would-be surrogate parents and guardians, and has explored the adoptive inclination to uncanny depth. In many of his short stories (and Purdy is one of the most accomplished writers in this genre to have appeared in America), we find some disruption or failure of the family. In I Am Elijah Thrush there is no actual legitimized family, but this allows Purdy to explore the notion of the family in broader terms….
[In] addition to being about the problems of relationships, America, the family, identity, perhaps most importantly the book is about language. Purdy's work is full of all kinds of narrators, writers, fabricators, cofabulists, memoirists, all in different ways either trying to ensnare the reality of another person's life in words, or compelled to undertake the listening and writing task, or actually attempting to evoke some reality to fill in the dark pits of their ignorance. As often as not, the reality these people are after eludes their words and vanishes into the unreachable silence of absence or death. To be born is to be inserted into a particular discourse, which to a large extent will determine the values, modes of perception, formulations of reality, by which and in which we live. And quite as often as feeling that they are in the wrong house, Purdy's central figures feel that they are in the wrong language….
Purdy himself uses words brilliantly, and it is only an apparent paradox that one of the main feelings in his work is that talk is our torment; that is, it torments us with the illusion of communication, while obscuring or distorting what we have to say. It may also take the place of emotion, or serve as a powerful tool in using people as things to implement one's own schemes.
Tony Tanner, "Birdsong," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1972, pp. 609-14.
Fantasy and allegory are inextricably mixed in Mr. Purdy's latest experiment in the field of fiction [I Am Elijah Thrush], written with characteristic audacity and cunning as high comedy. His preciosity may frighten unwary readers, but its use gives him an opportunity to exhibit many elegant flourishes in a story rich in meaning with its grotesque absurdities and somewhat florid style. Those participating in the limited action possess eccentricities of their own perfectly matching the intentional obfuscations of the text.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn, 1972), p. cxx.
[James Purdy's] I Am Elijah Thrush is about as commanding as a limp wrist. I hated it because it's the type of book that gives camp a bad name: its strident insistence on the bizarre is no substitute for the real, right thing. By which I mean the mournful, beautiful art of Ronald Firbank, or the exquisitely controlled lunacy of that great artist, Beatrice Lillie. James Purdy's cheaply scented twaddle struck me as being decadent in the way, say, that one's local Mac Fisheries on a wet Saturday morning is decadent.
Paul Bailey, in London Magazine, February/March, 1973, pp. 159-60.