Friday, May 29, 2009

Death of a True Maverick

Yesterday a brief internet trawl yielded a shocking bit of information. One of my favorite writers, James Purdy, died in March in Englewood, NJ, after breaking his hip. He was 94.

I can't really speak about Purdy without plundering some of the quotes put forth by his contemporaries. "An authentic American genius," hailed Gore Vidal. He was notably championed by Dorothy Parker and Dame Edith Sitwell, who claimed that her life would never be the same after having read Purdy's debut collection of short stories, 63: Dream Palace.

His fiction was hard to classify, as the characters and dialogue often seemed to be beamed from outer space. Having lived for a time amongst jazz and opera musicians in Harlem in the early 20th century, Purdy was one of the first white authors to realistically portray black America. In fact,his ear for black cadences was so acute that many of his publishers and editors (and James Baldwin) thought upon first reading him that he was indeed African-American. Purdy's other two favorite themes were innocence corrupted and duplicity in small town America.

The language he utilized was a strange bag indeed, and has been a huge influence on my own style. Lurching from midwestern vernacular to bombastic apostrophe, often in the course of the same line, his characters sound like Biblical street prophets oraculating wildly. They seem to be motivated by vanity, poverty or revenge, however, underneath this they lie on either side of that Wildean catch 22: the problem of yearning for love, and the problem of getting it. In fact, if his novels are about anything, they are about how love can distort the human spirit.

The crown jewel of Purdy's oeuvre, the novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works, is set in depression-era Chicago, and features a cast of characters so destitute and emotionally impoverished that one can feel the desperation oozing off the pages. Fortunately the book is also witty and absurd, with a distinctive gallows humor which could only be ascribed to Purdy. But this doesn't preclude empathy. To elicit empathy for such unsympathetic characters is Purdy's tightrope walk. Furthermore it contains all the elements of a great novel: doomed, operatic characters, catty dialogue, sexually-repressed-and-sublimating-wildly military officers, Shakespearean and biblical allusions including overly symbolic scenes of foot-washing and crucifixion, and a gruesome late-term abortion which may have you reaching for the smelling salts. It all culminates in a scene of S&M martydom so extreme it should by rights redeem all the characters. But of course it doesn't. The sense of release, as pointed out in Purdy's New York Times obituary, is infinitesimal, though the book could definitely be seen as one long primal scream.

Chisolm set the stage for later works such as Cabot Wright Begins, a "rape epic" featuring a titular protagonist at the top of his game, conquering huge numbers of victims and cutting a swathe through Wall street and various American grotesques with ruthless abandon.

Purdy was also a poet and playwright. His first novel Malcolm was adopted unsuccessfully for the stage by Edward Albee. This apparently threw his publishing rights into a tailspin, and years of obscurity followed. Further works included, Narrow Rooms, which was banned in Germany and featured shenanigans in an Appalachian prison, and The Nephew, the tale of a woman who, while preparing a memory book about the life of the titular nephew, discovers that he isn't quite the all-American clean-cut soldier boy he's been hitherto cracked up to be.

You can hear an interview with Purdy, in which he also reads a fantastic poem, at the Don Swaim author interviews page.

Here is the link to the great man's New York Times obituary:

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