James Purdy: Where to Start?

 

After posting my thoughts on Michael Snyder's new biography of James Purdy, I got questions from friends who were interested in this writer they had never heard of and wondered where to start. Here, then, some quick recommendations...

First, I don't think you can really go terribly wrong by just picking up whatever work by Purdy happens to be most easily available to you. He had plenty of range as a writer — more than he is often given credit for — but though I have not quite read all the novels, I have yet to feel there's a big range in quality there, with some novels great highs and others terrible lows (I think the range of quality in his short stories is bigger, as well as his plays; I have not read enough of his poetry to judge that yet). This makes recommendations easy, because if you like one Purdy novel, you will probably like them all to some extent, and if you dislike one Purdy novel, there's a very good chance he is not a writer for you — though it's also probably worth trying one more, just in case.

Nonetheless, there are ways to begin exploring Purdy's work that may be more likely to help you appreciate him. A lot of that, though, depends on your own tastes and expectations.

If you like short stories, definitely start with the short stories. They are conveniently all collected in one beautiful, big book. If you read no other stories by Purdy, read "Brawith" — I know of nothing else like it, the kind of story we might get if Flannery O'Connor dropped acid. The Collected Stories volume is fine to wander around in, though. There are some clunkers, but they tend to be short, for though he wrote some brilliant brief stories, the primary weakness in the weakest of Purdy's stories is underdevelopment. I can't think of a story over ten or fifteen pages that disappointed me.

If you prefer longer work to short stories, there are plenty of choices. Daniel Green's survey of the novels is a good guide. Here are a few paths and categories of my own:

 


Chronological:
Purdy's work developed in interesting ways, and his first novel, Malcolm, made his name. It also offers many of the themes, motifs, and character types that would carry through his next decade of writing, and, in many cases, throughout his whole career. 

Even though it was for much of the world a successful introduction to Purdy, I don't generally recommend Malcolm as a starting place because of my own experience. It was the first book of Purdy's I owned, bought in New York (probably at The Strand, I don't remember) when I was in college and obsessed with the plays of Edward Albee. Because Albee had adapted the novel, I thought I should read it. I bounced off it again and again, just completely unable to find a way to make it come alive in my mind. This was probably because I was a silly college student, and since you are probably not a silly college student it may work for you.

After Malcolm, the next three books expand and develop Purdy's range in ways that will become familiar — a deceptively gentle, pastoral tale in The Nephew (think Our Town meets Hairspray); the unhinged satire of Cabot Wright Begins; and the coming together of all of Purdy's interests and talents in Eustace Chisholm and the Works. After that, there are the further developments of the 1970s, where Purdy didn't ever quite leave behind the interests and style of those first four novels, but expanded in interesting ways.

 


Extremes:
For certain readers, I love recommending Narrow Rooms first, a kind of gothic horror novel that is not exactly gothic and not exactly horror but nonetheless not for the faint of heart. This book is pure essence of Jacobean tragedy. It's probably my favorite Purdy novel, and certainly the one that made me a lifelong fan. The fewer expectations you bring to it, the better, so I won't say much except that it isn't like any other novel I know. It is also the only novel I remember immediately rereading upon finishing it, because I had started it knowing virtually nothing about it and so did not have any idea where it was taking me; once I got there, I wanted to go back and retrace the steps. If you enjoy that extremity, then you also need to read Eustace Chisholm and the Works, In a Shallow Grave, I Am Elijah Thrush, and maybe even Cabot Wright Begins.

There's a different type of extremity in Garments the Living Wear and Out with the Stars, both of which have a certain preciousness to their design, like demented chamber music. I think it's uncontroversial to say these are minor novels in Purdy's oeuvre, novels that more vividly than any of his others show the influence of Ronald Firbank, but they are not uninteresting, particularly if, for instance, you are interested in Purdy's take on AIDS (Garments), which killed many of his friends; or are interested in an undisguised roman à clef about the composer Virgil Thompson (Out with the Stars). Out with the Stars got an uncomprehending, lazy review from John Weir in the NY Times (Weir, himself a fine writer, was too deep into his own activism and AIDS losses at the time for a novel like Out with the Stars to seem to him anything better than irrelevant. It is interesting to note that Fordham University Press has just re-released the book ... and they recently re-released Weir's two novels), but it got a perceptive (positive) review by Irving Malin in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, wherein Malin compared it to James McCourt's Time Remaining and said, "Surely McCourt has learned from Purdy; both writers are 'operatic,' extreme, and uncanny. Purdy has always been attacked as a camp writer. He is, ironically, a religious artist who recognizes that his words­ — perhaps all art — will never be enough to save him."

 

The Historical Novels:
Here are the novels by Purdy I have not yet had a chance to read, so you are on your own. They are Jeremy’s Version (1970), The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974), Mourners Below (1981), and On Glory’s Course (1984), all of which Purdy saw as linked and named, as a series, "Sleepers in Moon- Crowned Valleys". Of the first two books in the series, Stephen D. Adams wrote that they extend Purdy's "history of the American soul by examining the impingement of a more distant past upon the present." Adams describes their relationship to each other as "contrapuntal rather than sequential", each book rich with "unique, surrealist images of human blindness" and narratives "constructed in such a way as to undermine the surface shapings of the various story-tellers."

Right after them comes In the Hollow of His Hand, which like the quartet is also a historical novel, this one set in the 1920s in the midwest. These books all deal with Purdy's sense of his family's history alongside the history of the midwest and the U.S. generally — In the Hollow of His Hand is a story of Native American identity, an identity that Purdy claimed more and more for himself as he got older, based on sketchy stories/rumors he remembered from one of his relatives, and which allowed him to think of himself as separate from the strain of American ancestry he considered debased, destructive, greedy, and fundamentally stupid. For a thorough look at Purdy and indigeneity, see Michael Snyder's Ph.D. dissertation, "Mixedblood Metaphors".


That should be enough to get anyone started. Still, I don't think you should be especially anxious about which Purdy you read. Just read him. Let yourself fall into his weird structures and strange visions, knowing they may be so unconcerned with any of the niceties of contemporary fiction that they will seem alien; but they are not alien — they are, rather, unique, which is a different thing altogether.



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