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Purdy, James 1923–
An American novelist and short story writer, Purdy is the author of various "black comedies," including Malcolm and The Nephew . Noted for his terse style and ironic tone, Purdy pictures a world similar to Samuel Beckett's in its grotesque emptiness and sadness. His works are designed...
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- Critical Essays
Purdy, James 1923–
An American novelist and short story writer, Purdy is the author of various "black comedies," including Malcolm and The Nephew. Noted for his terse style and ironic tone, Purdy pictures a world similar to Samuel Beckett's in its grotesque emptiness and sadness. His works are designed to emphasize the sterility of modern American life, and his characters seem to simply exist with no discernible past and an ephemeral relationship with the physical world. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
The structure of a typical Purdy short story has … [an epiphanic effect]: a selected moment or series of moments that body forth a spiritual or psychological state of exalted confrontation between one person who is in extremis, and an auditor who is deeply but always powerlessly perceptive….
Of Purdy's twenty-two collected short stories in Color of Darkness and Children Is All, fourteen (roughly two-thirds) are … "duologues," conversational confrontations between two persons, and some of the longer works, like the novella "63: Dream Palace," are built up out of duologues, with only a rare scene involving three speakers. (p. 256)
The eloquently pervasive theme of all of Purdy's works is the failures of love, and these failures have their source in the orphanhood and half-orphanhood of children who, as adults, pass on the anguished, lonely legacy to their own offspring. Purdy's handling of the half-orphan situation employs the brief short story to represent the fetishism of one-parent children and the troubled anguish of deserted, sacrificial-possessive mothers; a frequent subtheme is the essentially epistemological problem of very young children's understanding of the listings and failures of adult love which victimize and deprive them. An almost equal number of stories, and two plays, present the problem from the mother's point of view, culminating in "Cracks," where the archetypal mother is seen as parallel to the God of Creation. In the earlier novels, the theme is largely implicit, subsidiary, or—in Cabot Wright Begins—absent; in the … novel Jeremy's Version, it becomes one of the dominant, major motifs as an exploration of the distortions visited on sons' and fathers' sexuality by matriarchal power. (p. 271)
[There is] a broad pattern in all his works, supported by varied, accurate, and deeply moving detail…. [An] examination of the half-orphan stories reveals the failure of human love in a pattern of reciprocal paradoxes: feminine sexuality is blasted by all the paradoxes of creation, because the immense sacrifices and devotion exacted by conceiving and nurturing offspring eventuate in a possessiveness which in turn distorts and cripples the masculinity of the son. His distorted sexuality renders him a grotesque who, as an adult, grants the same legacy to the next generation. Purdy's vision is somber and frightening, and it is to our own peril that we continue to ignore it. Certain of his more rabid partisans do both him and their readers a disservice in implying that his vision is absolute and exclusive, the only key to contemporary reality. If it were, even God could not help us. But it is a vision that touches, to some degree at any rate, the experience of every American family, and to that degree it deserves a far more serious consideration than it has received. (pp. 271-72)
Frank Baldanza, "James Purdy's Half-Orphans," in The Centennial Review (© 1974 by The Centennial Review), Summer, 1974, pp. 255-72.
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[The] world of James Purdy's novels is the Post-existential one of Heller's and of Barth's: the world has no meaning which can be rationally discovered; human beings have no innate identity; human action is futile. It is true, too, that although Purdy's techniques appear at first to be closer to realism than Heller's and Barth's, in the sense that fewer obviously impossible events take place and that his settings are familiar places—Brooklyn, Chicago, towns in the Midwest—his intention is usually theirs: to reject the reader, to destroy his illusions about the novel as a form, and hence to bring about in him the experience of the absurd. Most of Purdy's techniques are, in fact, those of the other novelists of number [Ihab Hassan's label for certain Post-existential fantasists, here including also Heller, Barth, and Vonnegut, whose language creates worlds of "pure and arbitrary order," which it then systematically destroys. This novelist of number] deliberately omits the motivations of his characters and indicates no causal relationship between events. His tone frequently conflicts with his subject; his dialogue has few logical connections.
Nevertheless, Purdy differs significantly from Heller and Barth in the effect that the Post-existential dilemma has upon him. For him it is cause for despair rather than for ironic laughter. The characters of Purdy's novels are human beings whose needs are desperate and whose agony is extreme. This agony is so apparent to us, perhaps, because of Purdy's emphasis on one aspect of the absurd dilemma: the failure of human communication which a purely subjective world and the lack of any innate human identity make inevitable.
The failure of communication is present in two forms in each of Purdy's novels. First, it is seen as a failure of all love relationships; for Purdy, love is primarily a matter of communication…. The progress in each of Purdy's novels is the same: it is a movement towards the loss of the hope of love…. (pp. 82-3)
The second, equally important failure of communication in Purdy's novels is the failure of art. More than any of the other novelists of number Purdy resembles Beckett in illustrating the concept of art as fidelity to failure…. Each of [Purdy's failed writers] fails to communicate through words, finding either that the truth, being subjective, escapes him, or that language is inadequate to express it. Purdy's own novels give us precisely that sense of attempted expression which fails, of art struggling against its own impossibility. Yet they exist, expressions of the paradox of their own existence. Like all novels of number they take the reader towards nothingness; each novel, like its reader, struggles but fails to make sense of the experience it records. (pp. 83-4)
The themes of "63: Dream Palace" [an early novella] are more fully developed in Purdy's first full-length novel, Malcolm. Using the picaresque novel pattern of a young man setting out to learn about life through a series of adventures, Purdy ironically tells the story of a young man who is used by everyone he meets and learns nothing.
Purdy stresses the "nothingness" at the core of his central character; Malcolm is an illustration of the non-identity of Sartre's being-for-itself. He looks like a "foreigner" and appears to belong "nowhere and to nobody."… He describes himself as "a cypher and a blank,"… claims that he hardly feels he exists, and has no knowledge of such facts about himself as his date of birth. When he dies and is buried, it is rumored that there is no corpse at the funeral.
Malcolm is an orphan; at least, his father has disappeared and is presumed dead, but his relationship to his father, his need for him, is central to the novel. It is clear that Malcolm's father's absence is intended to represent the absence of God in the modern world. Whether God ever existed or was simply a creation of man's desire for meaning, as Sartre and Camus claim, Purdy never makes clear. (pp. 87-8)
In the absence of God man will seek to find his own meaning, and Malcolm sets out to do this through visiting a series of addresses provided by Mr. Cox, called significantly the astrologer. It is through communication with people, then, that Malcolm first tries to come to terms with life, but as always in Purdy's novels, this proves impossible. Malcolm can be read as an account of the failure of many types of love. Each character with whom the boy comes into contact is insulated from reality and genuine human communication by his own obsessive illusion, by his own particular perversion of love. (p. 88)
Purdy stresses the negative aspects of Sartre's theory that being-for-itself is nothingness, that we have objective reality only to others. Identity is elusive to all the characters in Malcolm, so they cling to labels…. Language, they appear to feel, can create reality; Purdy knows better. (p. 89)
[Malcolm loses] his illusions, his hope of his father's return. On his deathbed he desperately turns writer in the vain hope that language will make some sense of his experience. He attempts to record his conversations with those he has met. This too is a failure; he is writing in a foreign language in delirium. Malcolm, then, is a novel of a young man's initiation into disillusionment…. Malcolm dies because there is no new direction to take. He has run out of addresses.
Malcolm, like "63: Dream Palace," opens deceptively: "in front of one of the most palatial hotels in the world, a very young man was accustomed to sit on a bench which, when the light fell a certain way shone like gold."… The effect of providing such details as the gold color of the bench, when nothing else is revealed, is to suggest that these details are highly meaningful, to raise the reader's expectations of discovering the significance. The point of them in Purdy's fiction seems to be simply that they are completely irrelevant: the aim is to frustrate the reader's expectations.
Similarly, the introduction of Malcolm himself, which takes place in the second paragraph, is a parody of similar introductions to be found in realistic novels where the reader is given the necessary information to place the protagonist in his background. The paragraph develops through a series of negatives; we learn nothing about Malcolm except what he is not: he "seemed to belong nowhere and to nobody, and even his persistent waiting on the bench achieved evidently no purpose, for he seldom spoke to anybody, and there was something about his elegant and untouched appearance that discouraged even those who were moved by his solitariness."… It is as if the novelist were attempting to begin but finding little he can say for certain; art is struggling with its own impossibility.
Purdy's description of the subsequent meeting with Mr. Cox contains many sentences suggesting meaning when there is none or emphasizing in contradiction to the sense…. What Purdy is doing in the first few pages of Malcolm is to suggest by means of such techniques the impossibility of establishing reality through words. He is attacking our preconceptions about language, is pointing out that language is that "absurd structure of sounds and marks" Roquentin sees it to be in Nausea.
The failure of communication is dramatized in Malcolm, as in "63: Dream Palace," through conversations in which characters reply to each other in a series of nonsequiturs. Although the characters frequently continue as if they had fully expected an illogical reply, their mutual lack of comprehension is obvious to the reader. (pp. 89-91)
Just as individual sentences cancel each other out, so too the action of the novel progressively unmakes itself. All relationships disintegrate…. As Malcolm follows up the addresses, each interview cancels the one before it; the new characters defame the old, as if … they feel they exist only by defaming others. There is progressively less relationship between the scenes, and Malcolm is eventually found drifting aimlessly from one place to another.
Each scene also tends to disintegrate, the characters becoming increasingly grotesque, the action more extreme. Purdy's method is to describe his characters only after we are used to their names and have been listening to their conversation. We are lulled into what we take to be a familiar scene and are then suddenly forced to recognize its grotesqueness…. It is not that these characters are impossibilities; they can be met elsewhere in life and in fiction. But Purdy has so many of them in one novel that he leaves the impression that the whole human race is distorted and grotesque in some way or another.
The struggle between the necessity to write and the impossibility of writing is clearly demonstrated in the final pages of the novel. The action, the langauge, the characterizations have all unmade themselves, and Purdy heightens the effect of this by adding some paragraphs which parody the neat endings of realistic novels. He demonstrates the impossibility of imposing form upon life by doing so in an exaggeratedly tidy way. He gives an account of what happens to each of the characters after the end of the novel. Kermit marries a wealthy film star; Eloisa and her husband take up social work; Estel Blanc runs an opera company; Girard Girard has six children; Melba marries Heliodoro, the Cuban valet; Madame Girard has a constant companion in a young Italian biochemist. Purdy has struggled towards a grotesquely happy ending.
In The Nephew Purdy extends the concept of elusive identity; the central character does not appear at all. Cliff Mason is missing in action in Korea when the novel opens and when it ends he is dead. We know nothing more of him at the end than at the beginning, in spite of the fact that the action of the book consists almost entirely of his Aunt Alma's attempt to write a "memorial" of his life…. Halfway through the novel Alma discovers "there isn't a thing she knows for sure about him,"… and finally she puts the record book, which contains "only a few indecisive sentence fragments,"… away in a drawer. The only evidence that does come to light about Cliff, the existence of four thousand dollars he had been given by Vernon Miller and some large photographs of him in Vernon's room, has implications that Alma prefers to ignore. Cliff is so elusive in this novel that his death … comes as a "mere corroboration to the public of the old suspicion that he had never existed at all."… (pp. 91-2)
Although The Nephew appears to be more realistic than either "63: Dream Palace" or Malcolm, it employs many of the techniques of the other two novels. Rainbow Center is peopled with grotesques…. These characters are reminiscent of Beckett's; their bodies are gradually disintegrating. Alma's and Boyd's increasing deafness is not perhaps as extreme a form of disintegration as Malone's, but it has much the same effect.
The action of the novel is a movement towards the void: Cliff, reported missing at the beginning of the novel, is reported dead at the end; Alma gradually realizes that she never knew anything about her nephew. Similarly, the reader is taken towards nothing as each piece of information gleaned contradicts what has gone before. (p. 93)
Purdy occasionally employs [a] technique used by Heller in Catch-22: he gives accounts of people or events at different places in the novel, and only in retrospect does the reader realize that they could not have happened as described…. The effect of this is to prevent the reader's being fully able to place the events in the novel [which resists] any chronological organization.
But in spite of this use of some of the techniques of number and in spite of Post-existential world view of the novel, The Nephew is not, perhaps, fully a novel of number. Purdy makes no use here of the language techniques important to the other works and there is no dramatization of art's struggle with its own impossibility. (pp. 93-4)
The world of Cabot Wright Begins is exactly the same world as that in Purdy's other novels. Here, too, everything is subjective … and each character has an illusory view of the next…. It is a world where identity is impossible to maintain and where the labels one attaches to oneself have no basis in reality. Thus Curt Bickle is a "writer," although he does not write, and Bernie can accept the promise Carrie [his wife] extends that he will be a famous novelist even though he has never done anything but sell used cars. Human action is motiveless and purposeless in this world. Cabot Wright apparently rapes for no reason…. It is the Post-existential world again, where all absolutes are necessarily illusions and a life built upon them ends in failure. (pp. 94-5)
[Although] the themes of Cabot Wright Begins echo those of the earlier novels, the emphasis here is different. Purdy is less concerned in this novel with the failure of human communication and more interested in the relation between art, particularly fiction, and reality. Purdy suggests that the usual concept of art as an ordering and conveying of reality is simplistic. Bernie Gladhart is sent to Brooklyn "with a mission to get the story of Cabot Wright from the convicted rapist's own lips, and to write the truth like fiction."… This proves to be impossible because Cabot Wright has no recollection of the "truth" himself. He has read so much about himself that he can no longer distinguish reality from fiction. Cabot Wright wants Zoe Bickle, who has now taken over Bernie Gladhart's task, to tell him the truth, so that he can find out who he is. Zoe attempts to do this but the gratuitousness of reality, the impossibility of finding the meaning in such a diversity of events, prevents her from completing the job. She finds that "Cabot Wright's life … was a hopeless, finely-ground sediment of the improbable, vague, baffling, ruinous and irrelevant minutiae of a life."… Fiction cannot capture reality and make sense of it, claims Purdy; the world is irrational and has no inner meaning to be discovered. Life is no more real than fiction, for to find a pattern in a life is to fictionalize it. Art is impossible.
Cabot Wright's realization of this makes him give up the search for who he is and brings him finally to laughter. What is described at the end of Cabot Wright Begins is an experience of the absurd: for the first and only time in Purdy's fiction a character laughs the laugh of ironic detachment…. However, Cabot Wright does not move from this realization of absurdity to find a way of living in rebellion or freedom…. Cabot's solution, then, as far as one can determine,… is merely to continue, to live in the present, with the full realization that there is no meaning, no intrinsic value in anything, always before him.
The impossibility of writing is the subject of Cabot Wright Begins, and Purdy's techniques dramatize his theme. Language techniques dominate this novel. Purdy parodies the inadequacies of the styles of various forms of writing, each of which lays some claim to the truth. When Cynthia, Cabot's wife, breaks down in a supermarket, Purdy reports it as if writing for a newspaper. As in "63: Dream Palace" and Malcolm he shows us the relative insignificance of knowing the facts….
In this novel, which is closest in tone to Heller's and Barth's novels, Purdy makes much use of that disparity between tone and subject they employ. An incongruous or ridiculous action is often mentioned obliquely in a sentence in which the main emphasis lies elsewhere. "It is doubtful if Mrs. Bickle would ever have been able to meet Cabot Wright or get one word or fact from him had she not, during a three-alarm fire, fallen through the skylight directly above his quarters,"… Purdy tells us, and then goes on to describe Zoe Bickle's life before she came to Brooklyn. When we are eventually given the details of Mrs. Bickle's descent into Cabot Wright's apartment, the objectivity of the description and the introduction of such irrelevant facts as the kind of sofa she landed on cut against the violence of the action and render it absurd. This discrepancy between what and how events are described suggests, of course, the impossibility of language's capturing reality.
For the first time in any of his novels, Purdy makes significant use of coincidence to suggest the futility of human action. Since there is no reason why things happen as they do, it is possible for characters to appear suddenly in unexpected places…. In novels we do not expect coincidence; we expect events to be related to one another and to progress to a conclusion. Purdy's novels end where they began or, if they move at all, move backwards towards nothingness.
Another way of saying this is to say that the novel unmakes itself. In his later novels Purdy has employed those techniques of self-conscious art used by Barth in The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy. He casts doubt on the validity of Cabot Wright's story by constantly reminding us that it is a version invented by Bernie, a novel within a novel…. Purdy ends Cabot Wright Begins with contradictory readers' reports … suggesting that art is as impossible to evaluate as it is to produce. There is no "true" version of the Cabot Wright story and, if there were, language could not describe it. (pp. 95-7)
[Eustace Chisholm and the Works] bears little resemblance to Cabot Wright in tone, is full of the agony of "63: Dream Palace" and Malcolm, but is concerned, like Cabot Wright with the dual failure of communication between lovers and between writers and their audience. It is the story of two men. The first, Eustace Chisholm, a pet, is scribbling a narrative poem on old newspaper. If the newspaper is our only version of reality, then how can one write a poem? But Eustace has second sight, knows in advance what will take place. Purdy appears to be hypothesizing: Supposing one could know the truth, he asks, would art be possible then? The answer is no. Eustace Chisholm burns his poem and says to his wife, "I'm not a writer, that's my news, never was, and never will be."…
The second character is Daniel Haws who cannot face his homosexuality and communicate directly with the boy he loves. Instead he visits him in his sleep…. [He] finally communicates with another human being, Captain Stadger, in a savage, sado-masochistic act that kills them both. Daniel's story is the story of all the minor characters in the novel. Each is in love with someone who does not return his love…. They are all, in a sense, sleepwalkers, an image Purdy picks up in his next novel, unable to touch each other. (pp. 97-8)
Amos Ratcliffe functions as the dream of illusion in which all the characters invest their lives…. There is a suggestion through metaphor that he functions as a symbolic representation of a debased deity, as Mr. Cox perhaps does in Malcolm. The important thing, though, is that Amos is not real to anyone….
The stories of Amos and Daniel become the material for Eustace Chisholm's writing as for Purdy's novel, and Chisholm's failure is, of course, Purdy's own. The characters steadily disintegrate, though Purdy tries to pin them to the page with labels: "Clayton Harms, the electric-sign salesman"; "Daniel Haws, the boy's landlord."… Communication becomes worse among the characters as the novel progresses until, in the final section, people communicate only through letters…. (p. 98)
This is a minor example of the technique of self-conscious art which is Purdy's main way of unmaking this novel. Eustace talks of the life of Amos as chapters in a novel. "If anybody had asked Eustace which of the chapters in the life of young Rat he liked the best … he would have had to reply, "The Make-Believe Dance Hall,"… says Purdy, and then proceeds to write the chapter. As Eustace waits to hear from Daniel, he is "as anxious to know the end of the Daniel-Amos story as a depraved inveterate novel-reader."… Purdy's increasing interest in the mutual incompatibility of various versions of one story is indicated in the titles given to the three main parts of Eustace Chisholm: "the sun at noon," "in distortion-free mirrors," and "under earth's deepest stream." It is an interest revealed in the title of his next novel, Jeremy's Version.
It is difficult to know Purdy's intent in this novel which is longer, closer to realism, and at the same time less interesting than his previous ones. The reader is informed on the jacket that it is the first of three independent works collectively titled Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys. The image of uncommunicating people as sleepwalkers is only one of Purdy's major themes to appear here…. Once again Purdy links fiction with newspaper reporting. The story—the material—concerns two families, the Summerlads and the Ferguses, and the effect of their destructive relationship upon a subsequent generation. For the first time Purdy deals directly with the agony of family relationships. (p. 99)
Jeremy's Version does not unmake itself in quite the same way as the earlier novels. Purdy suggests, however, that he is once again interested in the incompatibility of the versions of one story….
Purdy's work to date has been, with the possible exceptions of The Nephew and Jeremy's Version, a dramatization, primarily through language and action techniques and through self-conscious art, of the Post-existential dilemma. Art has been seen to fail many times. But the detached tone of Barth and Heller characterizes only some of Purdy's novels; his concern for human suffering tends to make itself known despite his intellectual assent to the notion of the futility of human action. It may be that the realism of Jeremy's Version indicates Purdy's intention to deal in the future in a more realistic way with the agonies of human experience in the Post-existential world. (p. 100)
Jean E. Kennard, "James Purdy: Fidelity to Failure," in her Number and Nightmare: Forms of Fantasy in Contemporary Fiction (© 1975 by Jean E. Kennard), Archon Books, 1975, pp. 82-100.
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"In a Shallow Grave" is a modern Book of Revelation, filled with prophesies, visions and demoniac landscapes. The moon appears to Garnet [the narrator] "by daylight, horned and angry and discolored." The novel itself is "horned" like Garnet's daytime moon. It holds us because we are stuck in the powerful, swaying rhythms of Garnet's voice.
This comes as a surprise, because Purdy's most recent novels, "The House of the Solitary Maggot" and "I Am Elijah Thrush," have been cranky, meandering exercises. The books tend to creak. They reflect in a sorry way the beautiful, ribbed dream world of "Malcolm," Purdy's first novel.
The new book perhaps will bring to Purdy the wider audience he deserves. Written in a sparse yet rough-edged style, it indicates the dilemmas of Purdy's writing. There have always been briers in his voice, as if he meant to tear at his readers with a kind of harsh music. Purdy is one of the most uncompromising of American novelists. Working in his own dark corner, he has collected his half-fables about a corrosive universe where children search for their fathers and are waylaid by endless charlatans and fools.
The very awkwardness of his lines, that deliberate scratching of the reader's ear, is Purdy's greatest strength. It allows him to mix evil and naiveté without spilling over into melodrama and tedious morality plays. There are no "legitimate" people in Purdy's novels, just fleshy ghosts like Garnet and Potter Daventry. Underneath Purdy's brittle language is a sadness that is heartbreaking, the horror of isolated beings who manage to collide for a moment, do a funny dance and go their separate ways. (p. 3)
Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 8, 1976.
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Although its subject is physical passion, "Narrow Rooms" is strangely bodiless. There's almost no characterization, which makes it hard to remember who's supposed to be dominating and murdering whom—I tried to keep a running score, but I still don't get that bit about Gareth and Brian and the train. Clearly, James Purdy thinks his story is fraught with significance, but the four boys are so interchangeable that I found myself wondering as I read what all the fuss was about: Why didn't they just draw straws for one another's favors, or take turns?
Contributing to the general aura of implausibility and thinness is the complete absence of a sense of place. This is a real loss, because Mr. Purdy's last book, "In a Shallow Grave," rather beautifully evoked the seacoast of Virginia and its inhabitants. A touch of local color is provided by folksy old Doc Ulric (who, because he is given nothing to do, seems invented for that sole purpose), and the boys sometimes say "ain't" and "cain't," although a lot of the time they don't bother. For the most part, though, Mr. Purdy seems uninterested in grounding his fantasies in accurate, or even credible, detail….
"Narrow Rooms" is well below the level of Mr. Purdy's past work, which has its witty moments (parts of "I Am Elijah Thrush") and even, in a bizarre way, its tender ones (the first half of "In a Shallow Grave," before the blood starts flowing). The abundance of clichés here—whereby a stopped grandfather clock is "the very embodiment still of Father Time" and West Virginia is continually referred to as the "Mountain State"—is puzzling in a writer whose prose has always been, if anything, too rarefied. Maybe the lackluster writing is a sign that even Mr. Purdy found his rural foursome a wearisome crew. (p. 46)
Katha Pollitt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1978.
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For Purdy, Christ's message was the last great event—the critical idea—in the history of human consciousness: "love one another as I have loved you." But Purdy is also a Calvinist (by way of Presbyterianism); he's a firm believer in man's fallen state…. When you put Christ and Calvin together, you wind up with the conflict at the heart of Purdy's vision: Christ held out the hope for love; lapsarian man continually assures love's defeat; hence, terror.
So Purdy's books are love/horror stories. In a significant sense, they are typically American tales of love and death…. They are chronicles of thwarted, aborted, twisted, hopeless, failed love. Purdy examines aspects of eros that we'd rather not acknowledge: the part of love that is hate; love as a struggle for supremacy; love as a constantly shifting pattern of submission and dominance; lovemaking as an act of revenge, or as ritualized murder; loving as obsessive behavior—the uncontrolled urge to possess, to subsume, to consume another; love as cannibalism. Purdy's subject is the suffering, blundering cruelty of love—a cruelty arising from its very helplessness. And here, in the recognition of the innocent, helpless springs of love, is Purdy's surprising, affecting sweetness. As John Cowper Powys put it: "His insight into the diabolical cruelties and horrors that lurk all the time under our skin is as startling as his insight into the angelic tenderness and protectiveness that also exist in the same hiding-place." Christ, cum Calvin.
It should also be said, before we go any further, that Purdy writes about a specific category of love: the love between men. This is a crucial undercurrent in almost all his books …, but Narrow Rooms is clearly his most explicit, graphic treatment of this subject thus far….
The violence, the perversion, the depravity [of the plot] sound perverted and depraved out of context, but there is a fine, inevitable emotional logic to the actions these characters take: they have to do the things they do.
Roy is the mesmeric, demonic center of the book. He cannot help acting out his inner psychic being, and he forces the others to play parts in his insane psychodrama…. Roy is the mad, evil genius, whose whole life is devoted to a single purpose: possess Sidney DeLakes…. Roy's is Ahab's story: his life, and the lives of all who come in contact with him, is devoted to a monomanical pursuit of an absolute—in this case, love. It is a quest that is doomed because absolute love, Christian love, is impossible in the post-Edenic universe. (p. 15)
Narrow Rooms is the most thorough, honest, human treatment of homosexual love by a writer of serious fiction in America….
Purdy must be praised for having the courage to examine a hitherto ignored area of human experience in a serious novel—for illuminating these passions in a "bright book of life." If only for this, Purdy's novel deserves to be recognized as ground breaking; revolutionary, even.
But there are certainly other reasons to praise this book. For one thing, Purdy has a remarkably accurate ear for American speech patterns—for the cadences and special flavors of the vernacular…. Purdy knows the importance of speech-rhythms. His characters are alive because their language is authentic.
They are alive, also, because we not only hear them speaking, but are intimately involved in their emotional lives as well. These people may be obsessed, crazed, murderous, drugged—in general, grotesques, freaks—but we understand their feelings. Purdy has the uncanny ability to compel us to experience emotional states we are thoroughly unfamiliar with. He alerts us to impulses we thought we had successfully murdered or buried. He sensitizes us to new (or rather, submerged) areas of our souls….
This is the largest reward of James Purdy's fiction; that is, the unique, subterranean angle from which he sees America…. Purdy probes the underside of the American psyche. (p. 16)
Paul Bresnick, "Love in the Zone," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1978 by Richard W. Burgin), April-May, 1978, pp. 15-16.
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[Narrow Rooms] is a tightly woven short novel set in a rural Southern landscape….
Although there are some explicit love scenes between two men, Purdy's interest in homosexuality does not seem to be pornographic. Sidney, Brian, Gareth, and Roy are all misfits. In a sense, they are lost souls who have become victims of their own illusions. The strong drama of the four men is maintained by their obedience to an unspoken and unwritten code, making it seem as if they are acting out a predetermined fate.
The story is filled with moments of violence and passion. It is easy to become involved with the characters and share their hopeless frustrations, even as their twisted logic and odd behavior keep them distanced from us. No irrelevant details intrude into Purdy's concise narrative as it moves to its chilling, grotesque climax. (p. 71)
David Bianco, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), June, 1978.