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.)