(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 entire section is 1312 words.)