Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America

by Bruce Perry
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379

First published: 1959

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological surrealism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Locale: A city in the United States

Principal Characters:

Malcolm, a fifteen-year-old boy

Mr. Cox, an astrologer

Estel Blanc, an undertaker

Kermit Raphaelson, a small man and a painter

Laureen Raphaelson, his wife

Girard Girard, a magnate

Madame Girard, his wife

Jerome Brace, a former convict and a writer

Eloise Brace, his wife and an artist

Melba, a popular singer and Malcolm's wife

Gus, a "contemporary" and Melba's first husband


The innocent can only grow up or die, and so when Malcolm—young, exquisite, and newly married—succumbs to alcoholism and sexual hyperaesthesia, the fact of his death has a familiar romantic ring. James Purdy, however, casts doubt on the coroner's report: a dog bite may, less romantically, have killed the boy, or, on the other hand, he may never have died at all. For this is a book in which the author claims not to know the story.

Abandoning the novel's old-time reliance on coherent detail, carefully structured to convince readers that characters and setting are real and the course of events inevitable, Purdy offers no overall context for his novel; he gives it to readers like a circus without a tent. Appropriately, the story takes place in an unreal city, which is never described as a whole; readers simply arrive at various dissimilar locations within it. The characters, collected from the city's chateaux and jazz joints, are so different in "period" that one would not expect to find them in the same book. Their behavior is bizarre and idiosyncratic; the descriptive detail of their persons is conflicting and arbitrary; and their dialogue proceeds by non sequitur. The range of conversational style includes high-flown rhetoric, deliberately awkward formality, stylized colloquialism, malapropism, and incisive comment. Resounding themes are initiated and then broken off, so that the book seems nervous, impatient, its penetrations accidental. It is put together like a collage, and one is constantly startled by the fragments. Their arrangement is unconventional, often witty and fresh, but the book's novelty is insistent in that the new becomes routine because it is not developed.

Malcolm is introduced sitting on a bench, waiting for his father, who has disappeared or died. A beautiful, blank-minded young boy—the issue perhaps of some immaculate begetting—he seems never to have had a mother at all. The boy knows no one in town, and his money, which was considerable, is running out. Expectant, susceptible, he merely sits and waits, and his grace is in his waiting quality, in his reverence for his father, his vague loyalty to their elegant, aimless way of life, and his reluctance to commit himself to anything else. In this attitude, he is, figuratively, on the bench.

The man who helps him off is Mr. Cox, an astrologer by profession, a corrupter by reputation, and, ominously enough, at least in his own mind, "civilization" itself. He offers Malcolm a series of addresses and, in this seemingly civilized way, introduces him to an exotic undertaker; an artistic midget called Kermit Raphaelson and his wife Laureen; a powerful magnate named Girard Girard and his forbidding wife Madame Girard; and finally, Eloise Brace, an artist whose pictures resemble herself, and her husband Jerome, a former convict who writes books and thinks that Malcolm is the essence of life. These people all like Malcolm, to varying degrees, and so with each introduction he becomes more involved in the madness of Purdy's adult world, closer to what is customary there.

As Kermit explains early in the book, both he and Malcolm are in the difficult position of being "not usual." The midget's life has been so brief and sheltered, in fact, that he can almost believe that he is not a midget at all but only a very small, not quite fully grown man. He cannot yet reconcile himself to the cruelty of being objectively defined, even though he does not hesitate to define Mr. Cox, the astrologer, as a "pederast," a word that Malcolm acquires and uses but does not understand. Kermit's despair comes when he resigns himself to the inevitability of his stunted form and begins to impose upon himself a stunted life, first by refusing an invitation that he longs to accept, an invitation to spend the summer in the country with the Girards and with Malcolm. Dazzled by the trio's splendor and held back by his own humility and resentment, the young midget can only kneel in anguish behind the door he has closed in their faces.

Malcolm, however, is too receptive to set limits on his life and too attractive to need to do so. Before the book ends, he is passing as a "contemporary," affecting the "usual" style of speech, and even marrying a popular singer, after the prenuptial rites of being tattooed and visiting a brothel. He has gone far from his bench by the time he catches sight of his long-lost father across a crowded nightclub room. After following the man to the lavatory, he attempts to embrace him; but his "father," a stranger, knocks him to the floor and calls him a pederast. Thus, the usual squalor of a men's room confrontation super-imposes its meaning on the hero's pure sentiments. Having been called the same derogatory name as Mr. Cox, he must by now be civilized. Yet, one cannot be sure, because Malcolm's adult vocabulary is still shaky: he believes that the derogatory word in question is simply a synonym for "astrologer."

MALCOLM is a book of innuendo and anticlimax, full of portended meanings, which, as an afterthought or a joke, are later denied. The obscurity of the sexual events is a case in point. The men that Malcolm meets are likely to suggest, somewhat ambiguously, that he lie down, talk privately, or come away with them, and in an early scene, Kermit disregards protocol by introducing Malcolm to his morning servant, rather casually permitting him to serve the ginger beer without any clothes on. After thus arousing interest in his character, Purdy never follows up the introduction. There are other fleeting glimpses of literally or emotionally naked people in this book, but, however straightforward their nakedness may be, the glimpses readers are allowed of them are teasing and pointless. Like Kermit's renunciation scene, the few passages that approach genuine emotion are undercut, contradicted, or diluted by what comes afterward. Even the basic axiom of the book, that Malcolm is valued to everyone, is brushed aside at the end by the fact that he is forgotten and so many things happen after he, like his father before him, disappears or dies.

To some extent, Purdy's mannered capriciousness is reminiscent of certain children's books, whose characters are fixed sketches that never develop, although their feelings, size, and shape can change at the snap of someone's fingers; where exclamation points, like hyperboles and non sequiturs, abound; where the protagonist is known by the other characters before he appears and is rebuffed or adored by them before he acts; where the world is strange to him and he has trouble with its language. However well-intentioned or affable he may be, he needs a great deal of magic to keep him going, and however humble or bewildered he may feel, his innate value, even natural royalty, is widely noted and proclaimed. One difference is that while the topsy-turvy rules of children's books are meant to confirm a child's native wonder, the disjointedness of MALCOLM is meant to confirm an adult's disillusionment. For Malcolm, the grown-up world is not magically beneficent. It is less, not more, than it seems. It is a broken world without organic naturalness, where people have lost their blood ties and live in an arrested season, an autumn that will bring slow death without change.

Because Malcolm's only response to experience is to yawn and smile, it is hard for the reader to care. A feeling of regret, like all the feelings the book invites, is quickly circumvented, and the novel's piecemeal antics offer little for the reader to remember, not even a shared experience of bafflement. MALCOLM seems a deliberately inexperienced novel, designed to convey the shape of disorder but never explaining a world poised between fantasy and catastrophe.

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