14 May 2018

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy


At the end of my recent post about Raymond Carver, I noted the influence of James Purdy on Carver and Gordon Lish, an influence I hadn't paid attention to before. Coincidental to my rereading of Carver, I picked up a copy of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy. Over the years, I've read and enjoyed (or at least admired) a number of Purdy's novels, but only a couple of his stories. Roaming around in The Complete Short Stories, I was stunned, overwhelmed. It was a similar feeling as I had when I first picked up The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector — an impression of a vast, original, surprising oeuvre revealed and tantalizing, like standing at the edge of an extraordinary landscape: knowing that what is in front of you is unlike anything you've seen before, and that more wonder lies on the other side of the horizon.

There's more in Purdy's Complete Stories than I have time or inclination to delve into here, from brief stunners like "Sound of Talking" and "Don't Call Me By My Right Name" to one of the great American novellas of the 20th century, "63: Dream Palace". Here, I simply want to look at two of Purdy's later stories, ones that are very different from each other, but both, to my mind, perfect examples of what short fiction can do: "Dawn" and "Brawith".

First published in Christopher Street in 1984, "Dawn" seems to be a simple, even familiar, story of a domineering father and a likely-gay son. Many other writers have played similar stories for pathos, but Purdy takes the more interesting route of placing most of the emotional content of the situation offstage. The narrator, Freddy, is the roommate of Timmy, the likely-gay son of Mr. Jaqua. The two are struggling actors in New York, Freddy has done an underwear ad to make some money, and Mr. Jaqua, back home somewhere very much not NYC, has seen the ad, is furious, and has come to the city to retrieve his son, who he considers to be a failure. Freddy is home at the apartment when Mr. Jaqua arrives, but Timmy is out somewhere. Freddy and Mr. Jaqua talk, Mr. Jaqua then goes to take a nap on Timmy's bed, Timmy returns, he and Mr. Jaqua argue in the bedroom while Freddy listens from the living room: "At first the voices were low, almost whispers, then they rose in a high, dizzy crescendo, and there was cursing and banging and so on as in all domestic quarrels. Then came a silence, and after that silence I could hear Tim weeping hard. I had never heard him or seen him cry in all our three years of living together. I felt terribly disappointed somehow. He was crying like a little boy." (Interestingly, Freddy starts calling Timmy Tim after he tells him his father has arrived: while Timmy becomes infantalized by his father, "crying like a little boy", Freddy now uses the more mature, but also more distanced, name.)

The argument is the climax of events in the apartment, and it leads to Timmy packing a suitcase and leaving with his father. What's centered, though, is Freddy's perception, which mutes the force of the argument as a climax — the argument itself is not dramatized or detailed, and we know more about Freddy's response than we know about the argument itself, though it's relatively easy to extrapolate in our imaginations. That's part of the effect here, one of the great pleasures of an efficient story: readers can build the scene in their minds, because the details, while few, are precise. Purdy frequently works with archetypes, and the father/Timmy relationship is highly familiar, archetypal, so it comes alive with a few strokes. 

"Dawn" is not, though, about the father/Timmy relationship. We don't really know this until the final paragraph, which is where the story's force resides. Cut the last paragraph of the story and it is a significantly different story (and a significantly less effective one, little more than an anecdote). On rereading, the story's implications, emphases, and emotions become a bit different, because when rereading we know we're really reading a story of Freddy and Timmy, and hardly at all a story of Timmy and his father. The father is a catalyst, but the story is separate from him. The familiar and archetypal qualities of the story invite us to assume it will be one thing; the last paragraph shows it to be another, and creates a shadow story.

The shift in the final paragraph is similar to one Brian Evenson points out with Carver's "Do You Want to Dance?", which, like "Dawn", jumps at the very end from a relatively concise relationship between events and narrative time to a final position of memory. Though used for different purposes, such a shift takes stories that otherwise work like classical one-act plays and situates them more firmly in the structure of prose narrative.

"Brawith", first published in The Antioch Review in 1994, is an utterly different story from "Dawn" — as much as anything else, "Brawith" is a surreal horroresque story, a story that would be quite comfortably at home in an anthology like The Weird. It begins:
Moira went for Brawith at the Vets Hospital despite the fact everybody told her it would not work out, and should he get worse, she would bear the blame for his death. There was no way for him to get well the same people claimed, and all her trouble would go for nothing. But Moira was his grandmother, she reminded everyone, and so she took him home to Flempton where she had a nice property near the copse. [...] 
Brawith had been nearly made a sieve of from the war, as people in the hospital said, whether from bullets or an explosion or from both factors.
Moira is kind and compassionate, but soon realizes she underestimated Brawith's wounds and the difficulties of caring for him. He doesn't speak much, and he has to carry a roll of toilet paper around with him wherever he goes. Moira puts on a good face, tries to stay positive.
Gradually it occurred even to her that he was slowly oozing from almost every pore in his body, and it was not that he did not think with words anymore, or not hear words, his attention was entirely occupied by the soft sounds like whispers arising from the wet parts of his insides, which shattered by wounds and hurts had begun gently coming out from within him or so it seemed, so that all his insides would one day peacefully come out; so his insides and his outer skin would merge finally into one complete wet mass.
That sentence! It's an entire story unto itself. There's what I think of as a staircase effect to the sentence: one detail leads to another and another, but not in a piled-on way. Instead, each detail moves the image forward somehow: the oozing comes to explain Brawith's reluctance to speak, the whispers and wounds lead to an explanation of his interior becoming exterior, and then this interior/exterior movement leads to a final unifying image of "one complete wet mass". The punctuation is typical for Purdy: loose, but not ostentatiously nonstandard — indeed, it seems to me that the choices in punctuation are designed to be as unostentatious as possible. Where I, for instance, would be likely to use a dash or semi-colon, Purdy gets by with a comma, and his commas control rhythm and organize chunks of information together. It's the kind of punctuation that fundamentalist teachers would spill red ink all over in student papers, but which I find quite easy — even breezy — to read.

Much like that sentence, the story keeps going and going, inexorably moving to a conclusion that is absurd, humorous, revolting, and, in its final paragraph, immensely sad. You can tell the basic plot to someone and they will laugh — I've done this, and could hardly keep a straight face as I said, "And he's most comfortable in his grandmother's chimney." The friend I was telling this to looked at me as if he had misheard. "Yes, her chimney," I said. "The chimney of her fireplace. He puts his head up, then he stands in it. Then he disintegrates. It takes a few pages, the disintegration. His grandmother keeps giving him toilet paper, but it's not enough to plug his holes, and eventually his innards empty out on top of her. It's a really sad, poignant ending."

My friend looked at me like I'd just spoken to him in Gaelic, and it was clear he would not ask me again to tell him about what I was reading.