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James (Amos) Purdy 1923–
American novelist, short story writer, poet, and dramatist.
Purdy is a gifted author whose subject is human estrangement and whose style blends the real and the surreal. Basic to Purdy's bleak vision of contemporary life is his belief that American culture is destructive to the individual and to family relationships. Postwar urban society as represented by New York City is Purdy's example of all that is wrong with a culture that places material gain above spiritual enrichment. Purdy's negative outlook affects his characterizations. His protagonists are desperate, alienated, and unhappy; his antagonists are often cruel, greedy, and manipulative.
Purdy's early works, including 63: Dream Palace (1957) and Malcolm (1959), focus on the exploitation of innocents by adults who attempt to buy love rather than earn it. The principal character in these stories is the adolescent male searching for love in his life but who, knowing nothing of its nature, can neither give nor receive it. He is often orphaned or abandoned, and has known no normal relationships. He is thus at the mercy of deceivers and victimizers. The physically or emotionally absent father is also a central character, and the mother is frequently depicted as immature, narcissistic, or sadistic. Most of Purdy's characters are married for the wrong reasons, and children are born into loveless homes. All his characters are removed in some way from the mainstream of society. Purdy believes that in their "otherness" they typify the alienation of contemporary life.
As with many of his works, Cabot Wright Begins (1964) is a statement on the failures of society. Here Purdy proposes that technical advancement and affluence have not eliminated the need to connect with other human beings. He believes that those who cannot communicate often resort to criminal or other unacceptable behavior. Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967) and Narrow Rooms (1978) concern homosexuality. In these stories Purdy attempts to portray the lonely and isolated lives of homosexuals as being merely other forms of empty love. The Nephew (1960) and In a Shallow Grave (1976) are the closest of Purdy's works to an acknowledgment that life may yet hold some kind of hope and meaning. The characters suffer the tortures of love and become more spiritually aware. Communication leads to a discovery of self and an appreciation of others. Critics think that Purdy developed this more positive view of life in Jeremy's Vision (1970), one volume of a planned trilogy entitled Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys. In this book he turns his attention towards the midwestern American past, where life is based on the founding morals and virtues of this country. This is in contrast to the decline of those same values in present-day society.
Purdy's strengths lie in his use of language, especially the patterns and dialects of his native Ohio, skillfully employed in dialogues between characters. He has been compared to many great writers, yet attempts to classify him have resulted in such diverse labels as naturalist, realist, black humorist, and satirist. However, he has been accused of writing from bitterness, petulance, and an inability to grow beyond the deprivations and disappointments of his early life.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)
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James Purdy began to make his reputation with some stories first successfully published in England, where the praise for him had that overripe odor that characterizes a peculiar subdepartment of British enthusiasm for minor American writers…. But the stories themselves, when they finally appeared in this country in the collection Color of Darkness, emanated a hard harsh radiance….
Purdy, like Kafka, tells dreams which turn out to be stories and at the same time retain their fretful, oppressive dream quality. With all their subdividing and subtlety of mood and observation, wit and document, they are very close to the origins of literature in dreamlife. Purdy seems to cross over into the dream world and carry back his booty into consciousness.
The Nephew, like Malcolm, Purdy's earlier novel, has a farcical surface, but his picture of life in "Rainbow Center" … is pervaded beneath the comic accuracy of speech by a deep despair and boredom. The plot concerns the unravelling of the life, or rather, its meaning, of the nephew, Cliff, the "boy missing in Korea," and of his connections with his ancient aunt and uncle and the other people of a stagnant Midwestern town.
But the plot is a mere excuse for a curious parody of a Norman Rockwell illustration or an Edgar Lee Masters poem. Talk of custard pies … is succeeded by talk of the great issue of life in the American Midwest now that the dust bowl and farm price supports seem to have receded in the American imagination…. Knitted together of interlocked anecdotes and archetypical figures, there are the foreign professor, formerly concupiscent, now senile, the real estate dealer, the unhappy school teacher skinnified by lost love, and a host of grumbling old folks; there is secret alcoholism, Christian Science, and class resentment; there is young Cliff, hiding in the wings, with his life both banal and mysterious. An accident occurs while hanging up "Old Glory" on Decoration Day. Hands are pressed together in silent understanding. Vladimir Nabokov seems to have been translating Edgar Lee Masters from the original Swedish into his native American.
Although the manifest action has to do with digging up the real life of Cliff, the dialogue, observation, and even more, the dreamy horror of the prose provide the actual subject. Like Nabokov in Lolita, Purdy is pervaded by a hopeless, witty, intelligent nostalgia. He expects, but does not dare define just what it is he expects from life. He only finds that "we, none of us, know anybody or know one another."
This familiar insight is not enough, and the sudden revelation of "love" is not enough, and the flash of oddball satire is not really enough, either. Of talent and prose pressure James Purdy has enough. Now he needs to find a compelling action for all this devilled-away feeling.
Herbert Gold, "Dame Edith Was Right," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1960 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 143, No. 15, October 3, 1960, p. 17.
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A problem novel in which the problem is never solved, Purdy's latest book [The Nephew] is in many ways a departure from the fey and fantastic humor for which he has become celebrated. If he mystified people and won many fans by Malcolm, he may gain some dissenters with this relatively simple novel of compassion and small-town humors. The nephew, unlike Malcolm, has few adventures, and the only one he has which is of dramatic consequence remains shrouded in Purdy's dialectical ambivalence.
In an unfair but accurate summary, the central problem is whether the nephew is a homosexual. His old-maid aunt and widowed uncle, who live together in a big, stuffed house, have taken care of the nephew from the time he enters the army. When they are informed that Cliff is missing in action, their world collapses. In an attempt to keep Cliff's presence alive, the aunt decides to write a memorial about him. But in trying to write down on paper the things that made up Cliff, she discovers she knows almost nothing about the only person she has loved.
In her search for the knowledge of Cliff's identity, the aunt begins to learn compassion through the discovery of many damning facts, or suggestions which might be facts…. The old-maid aunt, who used to be a bossy grade school teacher, is, in Purdy's eyes, discovering life.
Such a theme—self-discovery through understanding of friend or lover—is as old and valid as the first novel written. Where Purdy fails this time is in employing only sincerity and an extraordinary writing style in which every sentence seems the result of centuries of meditation. People also are needed for a novel. The plain fact is that the central character, Aunt Alma, is just not very interesting in the manner Purdy presents her. If she were a better woman, she would gain sympathy; if she were worse, she might exact a vulgar and lusty fascination. Remaining a narrow-minded, naive, lonely old woman, she is only pitiable. It is not so much that Aunt Alma is simple; the trouble is that Purdy simplifies her. She is closer to a type than an individual; her distance and mystery come not from complexity but from a lack of specific motivations….
Vagueness, in all of Purdy's short stories and novels, is at the center of experience, and Purdy's literary tactics are always to skirt the center, where pain and nothingness lie in wait. Instead, Purdy tells his story through the sidelines, just as most of his characters live their lives, or the most important moments in their lives, when they are reflecting on what others are doing. In this novel, the nephew is never seen, and the reader finds out little about him. Is he a homosexual? Purdy doesn't say. Did he love his aunt or hate her? Purdy doesn't say. But the novel is concerned with these questions, and the structure of the novel is as much a wandering journey as Ulysses. Only, unlike Joyce's book, there is no Daedalus, and Bloom is old Aunt Alma.
Also, what Purdy lacks is a conclusion, a Molly Bloom episode, some way of gathering up the shells picked up on the trip. He tries for this in a final scene between Alma and the richest woman in town—two characters separated by personality who are reconciled by the desire to understand the need for and the course of love. This scene is probably the most emotionally engaging in the book, but it is not a statement or a conclusion. It is a further investigation, and the center, the issue of the nephew's identity, remains nebulous.
Yet this technique—the search for understanding—worked wonders in Malcolm where the hero was looking for his father, or fathers…. In that book, however, Purdy exploited his fey sense of fantastic humor to make the improbable and absurd reveal perceptions about more mundane matters. In The Nephew, he tries for compassion and high seriousness with such earnestness that he verges on sentimentality one moment and on vagueness the next. As a matter of fact, his generous attempt to portray the commonplaces of life (including homosexuality) may earn him the dubious distinction of making the commonplace seem odd, and the queer, ordinary.
Martin Tucker, "All Ambivalent," in Commonweal (copyright © 1960 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXIII, No. 4, October 21, 1960, p. 99.
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There is a double edge to the quite remarkable talent of James Purdy. The simplest view of this may be taken by looking at the two novels he has so far published…. Yet the simple view of Purdy is not easily maintained, for he is more likely to blend what I think we may call the realistic and the surrealistic visions. He is rather complex and special. This was evident in the arresting short stories, eventually collected as Color of Darkness, which brought him such high praise several years ago; we have it again in [Children Is All, a] new collection of nine stories and two brief plays. (p. 25)
The shorter of the two [plays], "Cracks," presents a very old lady, her nurse-companion, and a small child. It consists largely of the musings of the old lady on life and death. Then when we have the old lady solo in darkness a Figure appears and they converse also of life and death. But the Figure, close-wrapped and half-shadowed in darkness, identifies himself as the Creator and says the world has come to an end. Nevertheless the vision concludes—or the old lady wakens from a dream?—and we are back with nurse, child, morning and an affirmation of ever-continuing creation.
"Children Is All," the longer play, is one of those "waiting for" situations which we have had at least from "Lefty" to "Godot." Here the regional atmospherics compare to The Nephew. We await with a middle-aged, middle-class woman the return after fifteen years in the Pen of her son who, perhaps unfairly, had been jailed for stealing bank funds. We are asked to believe (1) that in all those years she has never visited Billy and (2) that when he arrives in the night, wounded, and quickly dies in her arms she does not recognize him—though her house companion and a neighboring child know perfectly well it is Billy. Thus the play moves into symbols of human dissociation, of human estrangement or nonrecognition, and thus we have another dimension.
That James Purdy can—almost always—blend these strata of real and surreal effectively there is no doubt. It is this that gives so much of his writing an air of strangeness. For one thing, he never assumes the role of omniscient author: his characters enact the episode; and we are teased—not told—into some knowledge beyond what they know…. Purdy, line for line, is a master of living speech, but with utterly real speech he more often than not creates a bizarre situation.
Almost any story in Children Is All illustrates what I mean. A girl has an undefined but tension-building encounter with a swimming instructor. Two young men are rooming together, and one asserts terrifying, utter power over the other. A naked and aging school teacher, after being raped wanders across town to the home of a former student, now a pathetic teacher of music who has just lost his mother, and he takes her into his house with trepidation but finally, impotently, beside him into his bed. A man, also aging, wants to possess his daughter-in-law.
And so on. Always the vigor of creative talk (it is not surprising, from the stories, that Purdy is attracted to plays) building, to put it mildly, the special drama.
All this would add up really to tricks only, if it were not conceived in such penetrating compassion. In the second play the child reads from a book, "I felt the zephyrs of death blowing from the cracks in my surroundings." Such zephyrs blow chilly through these stories. The basic themes are loneliness and separateness. Where lives touch, or almost touch, there is terror. The author, as I say, is never on stage. But we know him by what attracts him and by the brooding wonder with which he probes it. So Purdy continues to be the exciting writer he has been from the very first. (pp. 25-6)
Winfield Townley Scott, "The Zephyrs of Death." in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic: © 1962 The New Republic, Inc.). Vol. 147, No. 20, November 17, 1962, pp. 25-6.
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In the last five years James Purdy has published two novels, "Malcolm" and "The Nephew," and a collection of stories, "Color of Darkness." These very nearly established him as one of the most important American writers to appear since the war. The judgment, which in the mind of crusty critics was rendered suspect by a certain voguishness that attended his sudden appearance on the scene, is now confirmed by the present collection ["Children Is All"].
Like Salinger, Purdy is a writer of love, "pure and complicated." But there all analogies end. For Purdy is a true original within the area where, neither windswept nor entirely claustral, his sensibility dwells. The area, as in so many works of Kafka, is sharply defined in its details and weirdly ambiguous in outline. His focus in human relations is the paradox of love and loneliness in our age, illuminated time and again by terror and humor. This is why Purdy's language, precise, simple, and spare as it seems, often glows in a surreal haze. The originality of Purdy may finally rest in his profound insight that language and feeling, in our day, have severed their connections. Dominated by dialogue, both incremental and repetitive (Purdy seldom describes, never editorializes), his work presents characters who can never say what they are most desperate to communicate. The casual, chatty surface of each narrative covers a cauldron of unappeased desires.
The present volume contains ten stories and two short plays. These fall generally into two categories: gossipy pieces, full of feminine intuition and sharp observation, and surrealistic parables written in an entirely credible manner. I confess to my preference for the latter genre, which seems to strike deeply at the origins of our perplexity. The best is "Daddy Wolf," about a man, whose wife has deserted him, waiting to be connected with a stranger over the phone…. Also among the best: "The Lesson," about a teen-age girl speaking to a swimming instructor about nothing and everything; "Encore," about a mother and her son; "Goodnight Sweetheart," about a gentle school-teacher raped at the age of sixty; and "Sermon," a masterpiece about everything and nothing, in which the preacher says to his audience: "I have talked here tonight in the hope you would not hear, because if you didn't you might not so thoroughly disgust yourselves, and therefore me." Indeed, that message may be what the fine and unholy art of Purdy disguises from his readers….
The uncanny technical skill of Purdy brings his material to terrible life because it is backed by an authentic vision of love, anguish, and incongruity. When the vision falters, the work becomes fussy, nasty, or narrow. But this so seldom occurs that we can rejoice again in the possession of this new work by one of America's best writers.
Ihab Hassan, "Of Anguish and Incongruity," in Saturday Review (© 1962 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLV, No. 46, November 17, 1962, p. 29.
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[In] Children Is All, Purdy displays once more the talents, quirks and compulsions that have, in the few short years be has been publishing, moved his readers to almost equal extravagance of praise and exasperation.
What is best in this volume is unmistakably Purdy. Perhaps the same is true of what is worst in it, but that is at least a less obvious conclusion. "Daddy Wolf," for instance, the first story in the collection, is a totally successful tour de force—a semihysterical monologue by a Negro whose wife and child have abandoned him and their rat-infested tenement flat Dialogue has always been a Purdy strength, and in "Daddy Wolf" the speech is exactly right. It is funny, sad, realistic and poetic, conveying a story that slides imperceptibly from the closely observed commonplace to the hallucinatory and symbolic.
In Purdy's stories, of course, the hallucinatory and symbolic are the commonplace, or at least they make themselves felt in the sense of doom and strangeness, of impending revelation, which is attached in Purdy's world to every human situation. So it is in "Encore," another of the more successful stories in the book. As in most of Purdy's narratives, nothing much happens in "Encore," except that a despairing mother eats some "jello" and her grown son plays his harmonica. But in the "ordinary," albeit pain-filled, mother-son encounter, the meaninglessness of their conversation, the non sequiturs, the arrested gestures, the silences—everything, no matter how inconsequential, is charged with an almost unbearable weight of significance. Invariably in Purdy's stories the nature of that significance remains mysterious, but always it is threatening and tragic.
Such stories have been praised, and rightfully, for their "insights," their perceptions of the madness or horror or agony that lurks beneath the surface of all our lives. This is Purdy's great gift—to be able to hear the thunderclap of significance in the merest word, to see the presences which are felt by all, but denied by those who live in the "clear light of every day." Often enough, though, Purdy's visions are so obscure, so tremulous and fragmentary that they signify nothing except that they are visions. Often the strangeness of his imaged world makes it impossible to believe in, impossible to be moved by anything so remote, so blurred and shapeless.
These are standard objections to fiction like this, and they are real. Most basically, an epiphany must show forth something; Purdy's revelations tend to be as incoherent as the life he depicts. But the most surprising observation to be made about Children Is All is that its stories are perhaps worse, not better, when their author seems to have heeded the suggestions implicit in this kind of criticism. That is, the stories which are least vague and least incredible, which turn from the world of irrationality and dream in favor of tangible reality and "normal people in normal situations," are at least as bad in their way as the most unfortunate of Purdy's grotesqueries. Without the surrealistic twist, the hint of hysteria which gives point to the other stories, Purdy's more "realistic" narratives—"Mrs. Benson," for instance, which is a labyrinthine conversation between two women in a tea shop—succeed only in being at the same time trivial and pretentious. (pp. 393, 395)
The plays in this collection—"Children Is All" and, especially, "Cracks"—prove only that Purdy is no playwright. They are static, clumsy, self-consciously oracular, as the stories seldom are, as well as murky and diffuse, as the stories not so seldom are. That is not to deny, of course, that they have flashes of poignance, memorable images and gems of language.
But as a volume, Children Is All is weak and faltering. Some of the stories in it are masterful; most of them are impressive. Even at their best, however, they add up, for me, to little more than a sudden wrench of pain, a shudder, a glimpse of the moving darkness. Brilliant and rare as these displays may be, I am afraid there is little in them to engage us very long. (p. 395)
Richard Horchler, "Impending Revelations," in Commonweal (copyright © 1963 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXVII, No. 15, January 4, 1963, pp. 393, 395.
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In the three decades since the end of World War II—a period when American affluence and technological impersonality grew to astronomical heights and appeared to many Americans to be the be-all and end-all of human existence—Purdy dared to tell them the truth: behind the facade of great material wealth lay a vast spiritual wasteland of loveless lives and hellish marriages; from such barren marriages came children who, as a rule, were treated cruelly by their parents or by other adults; rape and homosexuality were engaged in by those who, denied love in their own lives, sought it in antisocial actions; and most ironic of all, the quest for wealth and the possession of it did not result in happiness. (p. 126)
In fiction delineating such malaises, Purdy has resorted to shock devices, but certainly not for the sake of mere shock; rather, he has employed them, we think, to awaken his readers from the torpor into which many of them have fallen, lulled as they have been by the innumerable material satisfactions and pleasures easily available and by the ennui and boredom that accompany a surfeit of pleasures. If shock is effected by subject matter in which one homosexual is shown severing the genitals of another homosexual, or in which rape is as casually committed as the smoking of a cigarette, shock is not Purdy's purpose: he is intent upon showing us that these actions are simply the ugly results that occur in a society in which, despite a cornucopia of wealth and mountains of material goods, very little love is expressed by Americans for one another. Indeed, a person in Purdy's fiction does not so much die of love as he does from a lack or betrayal of this life-giving and life-animating quality; therefore, the lack of love in the lives of those so affected leads them to seek love in what would be considered antisocial actions.
Still, Purdy's forte is not his choice of subject matter and its shock effect, for all of us know that shocks resident in subject matter soon cease to be effective; it is rather in the shock of style that Purdy excels. For, in narrating his tales of blighted lives, he manages to portray scenes in which the extremely abnormal is linked to the so-called normal ways that have a degree of verisimilitude not previously thought of; in which unexpected aspects of character surface when least expected; in which the lovelessness of modern marriages is set forth in a minimum of dialogue but with such vividness and horror that the reader knows instinctively that he has never before experienced these terrors in print.
This shock of style never ceases to be effective and startling and applies to practically all of his fiction, with 63: Dream Palace, "Color of Darkness," and "Daddy Wolf" as immediate examples. This power is seen in the use of such technical devices as jostling contradictions, the mixing of the banal and the wise, and the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the normal—all in absolutely new ways. In fact, Purdy's major strength lies in his ability to take so-called repellent subject matter and so work with it that he turns it into a true work of art…. All this is accomplished in a style that is not only unique in its simplicity, but which is also characterized by clarity, force and beauty—the three chief qualities of good writing. In addition to Purdy's ability to write unforgettable parables of the way Americans have lived in the past two decades, Purdy's loveless view of life is rich in humor of various kinds—zany, "black," surreal or quietly reflective. We all remember how the drunken porter's humor in Shakespeare's Macbeth serves as a contrast to Duncan's murder; as a result, this swinish humor helps set this ghastly deed in stark relief. In Purdy's case, his humor does not serve as a contrast to the dour actions that he usually narrates; instead, his humor is warp and woof of his style; and an example of the humor of the quietly reflective kind illustrates this point. In "Plan Now To Attend," the reader notes that Fred, who normally drinks heavily to bury his sense of emptiness, is shown listening very carefully and soberly to his friend Ezra Hightower, the converted atheist, who is muttering in his drunken stupor that Fred will ultimately be saved. Such a scene reveals Purdy's ability to intertwine aspects of humor with the elements of tragedy but to keep uppermost the tragic sense.
Purdy's talent is a many sided one; for, in addition to being an instinctive portrayer of the dark underside of human nature, he is also an excellent regionalist, as is seen in The Nephew and a crack fantasist, as in Malcolm…. Eustace Chisholm and The Works reveals his strength as a Realist who depicts the tragic world of homosexuality. But Purdy has, in fact, created many worlds; and each with its own discernible and distinct features. Each of these worlds is populated with a host of characters: orphans, thoughtless and cruel parents, failed artists, budding writers and actors, spinsters, grand ladies, teachers and professors, widowers and widows, financiers, homosexuals, and invalids—all of whom form a veritable gallery of typical figures of and for our time. (pp. 126-28)
However much Purdy has been on target in depicting the malaises of contemporary society, and however faithfully and stylistically he delineates these problems, his portrait of contemporary America nonetheless lacks balance in certain respects. First, not a single character in his fiction can be said to be a truly happy person, in the sense that the character's potentialities have to a degree been fulfilled. Second, no Jews are presented in his works—a glaring omission in an age when these people have played such important roles in American life and have also filled the pages of so many contemporary novelists. Third, there is a scarcity of good people in his fiction—people who would perform an unselfish act merely for the pleasure such an act would provide. Fourth—and here Purdy can be scored—there are many marriages that are really a union of hearts, and there are the children of these marriages who grow up to become loving parents themselves. Fifth, in his humor, an area where Purdy excels, never once do we find a play of wit; this omission is probably due to the lack of intellectuals in his works.
Because of his consistently dour vision, we would say that Purdy has an affinity with the Naturalists. But where such earlier writers as Theodore Dreiser, James Farrell, and John Dos Passos fashioned characters who were shown as scrambling for survival and buffeted by an indifferent universe, Purdy's characters, on the other hand, are not so circumstanced. Rather, their emotional deficiencies—their inability to give or receive love in any meaningful way—subjects them to our careful scrutiny and finally arouses our compassion for their disability. (pp. 128-29)
In conclusion, we could forecast Purdy's future as a writer to be a promising one; however, he is at a crucial point in his career. Should he continue to write about orphans, failed and miserable marriages, rape, and homosexuality, readers will soon conclude that Purdy has run out of material for his fiction. On the other hand, should he grow and use new and different source material for his fiction, readers will eagerly seek to see what a fundamentally honest craftsman has fashioned that is fresh…. Should he, however, not develop new themes but adhere to his former ones, he will still remain important as an author who wrote about Americans and the way they were in the 1950s and the 1960s. With his many characters who suffer so deeply and lamentably because of a lack or betrayal of love, Purdy has fashioned several works of art out of the dark interiors of the human soul. With his satirical treatment of many aspects of American life, he has portrayed a way of life, which apparently is materially successful, but at rock bottom is characterized in many instances by spiritual bankruptcy and has caused us many of our current problems.
All told, Purdy is a writer of marvelous power, who has made us think deeply and seriously about the human condition, which he regards woefully…. In short, Purdy's power and style are two positive virtues in a period when many writers simply lack one or another of these ingredients in their works. (pp. 129-30)
Henry Chupack, in his James Purdy (copyright © 1975 by Twayne Publishers; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1975, 144 p.
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[Purdy's] originality and extraordinary talents cannot be neatly inventoried and … to portray him as the author of an eccentric body of fiction, as a part of some movement or fashionable literary trend, or as a novelist who essentially mocks the capacities of art, is to deny the complexities of his individual voice. His own description of his work as an exploration of the American soul conveyed in a style based on the rhythms and accents of American speech runs contrary to such categories and is a claim that merits examination.
The author's distinctive formal and philosophic preoccupations need to be seen in a broader, more tentative perspective. Although it has an urgent bearing upon the present day, there is a timeless quality to his work. The avowed concern for the world of the spirit and its relation to language evokes the native tradition of Melville and Hawthorne with their passion for metaphysics and command of symbolist techniques. As might be expected, there is also an evident fascination with the hellenic age when speculations on human destiny were at an intense pitch. Purdy sees modern America as the enemy of the soul and would subvert the suffocating patterns its culture imposes upon the individual self by his own exemplary fictions. Thus his families and miniature societies are simultaneously the vehicles for an exploration of the national psyche. At another level he re-tells, in his own special idiom, the Christian story of how a being charged with life's spiritual or divine possibilities is denied kinship in the larger world. It is misleading, then, to insist on measuring the characters in such a drama by the criteria of social realism or by those of a strict psychological verisimilitude. They are projections of the inner life, put forward as hypotheses about existence and endowed with the reality of the author's innermost convictions. Regarded in this light, art is accorded the highest functions—it keeps alive the memory of those ingredients that have been excluded from everyday existences and Purdy might more profitably be seen as the 'memorialist' of the qualities that have gone missing from his native culture. He is the self-styled prophet and chronicler of its omissions.
The philosophic basis of his work might loosely be described as that of the Christian existentialist. The difficulty of the individual's quest for an authentic selfhood in a society whose commercial forces, in particular, are pitted in opposition, is imaged in that pervasive feeling of being alone in an alien, absurd world. Characters are mysteriously orphaned and cut off from the source of their spiritual identity, in exile from some heavenly home. Their 'homelessness' is captured in those moments when the everyday fabric of life is suddenly shot through by radical doubts as they become aware of an essence that cannot be fulfilled within the terms of an earthly existence. A typical reaction is to abdicate the painful struggle, to refuse to live in the present and to conjure up idealised realms within the past or future. Though Purdy is fond of alluding to Platonic doctrines to comment on these inner yearnings, he is also acutely aware of the dangers associated with attempts to arrest life in forms that simulate such ideals. His vision has affinities with that expounded by Unamuno in his book The Tragic Sense of Life, for both articulate in their different ways the sense that it is the dialectic of faith and doubt itself, with its roots in the paradox of suffering, that offers an authentic mode of being. This religious dimension is responsible for that elusive manner in which highly individualised characters seem inseparably involved in some mythological drama or mystery play, in which life discourses upon its own possibilities and failings. This is not to suggest we are presented with dimly veiled allegories, but that the author's focus is upon the minute interactions of different levels of being.
These interactions are communicated by subtle formal strategies as distinct layers or patterns of meaning are brought into contact. Purdy resembles Faulkner in the sheer quantity of narrators he employs. But now the narrative act has turned in upon itself and instead of dramatising a search for meaning, it more frequently exemplifies the author's notion that real life has been reduced to the texture of a fiction. His characters typically aspire to an omniscience over the raw materials of their destiny and of those around them. Yet the stultifying consequences of such attempts to superimpose a story upon the actual world of love and suffering are constantly exposed by the subversive artistry of Purdy himself. Their elaborate constructions are caused to perform a slow dance of death, to spell out the 'inside story' as we are brought to read 'between the lines'. (pp. 8-10)
Stephen D. Adams, in his James Purdy (© 1976 by Stephen D. Adams; by permission of Barnes & Noble Books, a Division of Littlefield, Adams & Co., Inc.), Barnes & Noble, 1976, 166 p.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237
The story [of Mourners Below] is deceptively simple. It's a kind of battlefield where the living play dead, and the dead begin to warp those "mourners below." Most of the novel exists in that lost hour "between very late and very early." This has always been the strength of Mr. Purdy's writing. He cuts below the skin and doesn't become involved with the sociology of any particular time or place. He uses locale to isolate hysteria and deal with that terrible anger of being unloved. The rhythms of his prose have nothing to do with mimicry, or the rendering of American speech. He has never sought to be a caricaturist, to parody the best or the worst of our lives. That slight awkwardness of Mr. Purdy's corrosive style, the deadpan electricity his characters speak with is the crazy jumping sound of the heart's own music.
James Purdy is one of the very best writers we have. He exists in some strange limbo between adoration and neglect. His books are "noticed," but they are rarely celebrated the way they should be. Perhaps this is because Mr. Purdy doesn't play the peacock in his books or strut around with his talents. You have to peek under the feathers to catch the wildness of his prose.
Jerome Charyn, "Unloved and Angry," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 26, 1981, p. 8.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
Mourners Below, which appeared this past summer, is Purdy's tenth full-length novel, and the book appears likely to share the same fate as its immediate predecessors. If critics can be likened to rock climbers, then Mourners Below is a sheer scree slope, offering countless apparent critical footholds, but none which is strong enough to bear the weight of complete interpretation. The book seems to call out for all manner of critical approaches—psychoanalytic, archetypal, even phenomenological—yet it cannot be made to cohere in any of these systems. The book remains elusive, and this fact, while certainly inconvenient for the critic, is perhaps the novel's greatest strength. Unlike many works that fit neatly into the syntax of a specific critical language, Mourners Below is a work that cannot be easily assimilated intellectually. It retains its mysteries to the very end….
[The plot] sounds very bleak and melodramatic on the surface, and more than one critic has been fooled into thinking that Purdy's intentions are gloomy drama and symbolic tragedy. But, while the grief in Mourners Below is very real indeed, it is touched by an inimitable quality of absurdity and deadpan excess. The morbid background of silence and death is only an instrument of Purdy's essentially comic vision. Every obsession—silence, love, sexuality—is pushed to an extreme, and the effect is as unsettling as it is indescribable.
Purdy achieves comedy principally through his use of language. Although the author likes to think that he accurately renders colloquial American speech, the words that issue from his characters' mouths are comic for their very awkwardness and oddness—for their very distance, in other words, from natural speech….
Purdy's narrative voice … serves to magnify [the] impression of a world slightly askew: "On learning of Duane's predicament, Aileen had a mild heart attack"; "Nothing was ever quite the same after Duane's fall through the railing of the staircase"; "Had he returned unexpectedly he would have been baffled but perhaps gratified to hear the savage cries of weeping coming from the billiard-hall operator as he pressed his face against the cheap green paint of the wall, and presently beat with his two fists against it." This is hardly melodrama. Nor, however, is it parody. While Purdy's language resembles the flat prose of an Ann Beattie or a Raymond Carver carried to its extreme, it is imbued with an archaic formality quite unlike anything else in contemporary fiction. It is the language of no world I am familiar with outside of Purdy's novels.
James Purdy is, in short, an unusual and remarkable writer. He may even be an important one, and Mourners Below, one of his best novels will do nothing to hurt his reputation. If we are ever to appreciate the true value of his body of work, however, it is imperative that we stop viewing him as either embarrassing cult idol or neglected genius, and begin seeing him for what he is—a compassionate storyteller and an original stylist of the very first order.
Gary Krist, in a review of "Mourners Below," in The American Book Review (© 1982 by The American Book Review), Vol. 4, No. 4, May-June, 1982, p. 11.
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