James Purdy (July 17, 1914 – March 13, 2009) is one of the more independent, unusual, and stylistically unique of American writers, since his fiction—novels, plays, and short stories—maintains a dark vision of American life while stating that vision in a literary voice unlike any other American writer. In more than a dozen novels, several collections of short fiction, and volumes of poetry and plays, Purdy has created an unrelentingly tragic view of human existence, in which people invariably are unable to face their true natures and thus violate—mentally and physically—those around them. In an interview in 1978, Purdy said:
I think that is the universal human tragedy. We never become what we could be. I believe life is tragic. It’smy view that nothing ever solves anything.Ohyes, life is full of many joys . . . but it’s essentially tragic because man is imperfect.Hecan’t find solutions by his very nature.
As a result of his tragic view of humankind, Purdy’s fiction often contains unpleasant, violent, even repellent actions by his characters.
The short fiction of James Purdy is marked—as are many of his novels—by the recurrence of several themes, among them the conflict in the American family unit caused by the parental inability to relinquish control over children and allow them to live their own lives, a control to which Purdy has often referred as the “cannibalization” present in the family. A second theme frequently found in Purdy’s short fiction is that of obsessive love that cannot be expressed, both heterosexual and homosexual. This inability of individuals to express their emotional yearning and longing often is turned into an expression of violence against those around them. The homoerotic element in Purdy’s fiction only accentuates this propensity to violence, since Purdy often sees the societal repression of the homosexual emotion of love as one of the more brutal forms of self-denial imposed on an individual. Thus, many of his stories deal with such a latent—and tension-strained—homoeroticism. These two themes are conjoined occasionally in many of his novels and short stories to produce the unspeakable sense of loss: the loss of self-identity, of a loved one, or of a wasted past.
Color of Darkness
In “Color of Darkness,” the title story of the collection by the same name, a husband can no longer recall the color of the eyes of his wife, who has left him. As his young son struggles with the memory of his lost mother, he begins to suck regularly on the symbol of his parents’ union, their wedding ring. In a confrontation with his father—who is concerned for the boy’s safety because of the metal object in his mouth—the youngster suddenly kicks his father in the groin and reduces him to a suffering, writhing object at whom the boy hurls a crude epithet.
This kind of terrible family situation, embodying as it does loss, alienation from both a mate and a parent, and violence, is typical of the kind of intense anguish that Purdy’s short stories often portray. In the world of Purdy, the American family involves a selfish, possessive, and obsessive struggle, which, over time, often becomes totally self-destructive, as individuals lash out at one another for hurts that they can no longer endure but that they cannot explain.
Don’t Call Me by My Right Name
Elsewhere in the collection Color of Darkness, “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name” portrays a wife who has begun using her maiden name, Lois McBane, because after six months of marriage she finds that she has grown to hate her new name, Mrs. Klein. Her loss of name is, like many such minor events in Purdy’s fiction, simply a symbol for a larger loss, that of her self-identity, a theme that Purdy frequently invokes in his novels (as in his later novel In a Shallow Grave). The wife’s refusal to accept her husband’s name as her new label leads to a violent physical fight between them following a party which they both attend.
Why Can’t They Tell You Why?
This potential for violence underlying the domestic surface of the American family is seen again in one of the author’s most terrifying early stories, “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” A small child, Paul, who has never known his father, finds a box of photographs. These photographs become for the boy a substitute for the absent parent, but his mother, Ethel, who appears to hate her late soldier-husband’s memory, is determined to break the boy’s fascination with his lost father. In a final scene of real horror, she forces the child to watch as she burns the box of photographs in the furnace, an act that drives the boy into, first, a frenzy of despair and then into a state of physical and emotional breakdown, as she tries to force the child to care for her and not for his dead father. Again, Purdy has captured the awful hatreds that lie within a simple family unit and the extreme malice to which they can lead.
A similar tale of near-gothic horror affecting children is found in Purdy’s story “Sleep Tight,” which appears in his 1985 collection, The Candles of Your Eyes. In it, a fatally wounded burglar enters the bedroom of a young child who has been taught to believe in the Sandman. The child, believing the man to be the Sandman whom his sister, Nelle, and his mother have told him about, does not report the presence of the bleeding man, who takes refuge in the child’s closet. After the police have come and gone, the child enters the closet where the now-dead man has bled profusely. He believes the blood to be watercolors and begins painting with the burglar’s blood, and he comes to believe that he has killed the Sandman with his gun.
Domestic violence within the family unit is but one of Purdy’s terrible insights into family life in America. Subdued family tensions—beneath the surface of outright and tragic violence—appear in “Cutting Edge,” in which a domineering mother, her weak-willed husband, and their son (an artist home from New York wearing a beard) form a triangle of domestic hatred. The mother is determined that her son must shave off his beard while visiting, so as to emasculate her son symbolically, the way she has emasculated his father. The son is aware of his father’s reduced status at his mother’s hands and even suggests, at one point, that his father use physical violence against the woman to gain back some control over her unpleasant and demanding, dictatorial manner. Purdy directly states in the story that the three are truly prisoners of one another, seeking release but unable to find it. Purdy thus invokes once again the entrapment theme that he sees typical of American families. The father, in insisting on his son’s acquiescence to the mother’s demand for the removal of the beard, has lost all credibility with his son. (The father had told the son that if the offending beard was not shaved off, then the mother would mentally torture her husband for six months after their son had returned to New York.)
The story’s resolution—when the son shaves off the beard and mutilates his face in the process as a rebuke to his parents—is both an act of defiance and an almost literal cutting of the umbilical cord with his family, since he tells his parents that he will not see them at Christmas and that they cannot see him in New York, since he will again have his beard. This story also introduces another theme upon which Purdy frequently touches: the contempt for artistic pursuit by the narrow and materialistic American middle class. The parents, for example, see art as causing their son’s defiance of their restrictive lives.
A similar mood is found in the story “Dawn,” from the collection The Candles of Your Eyes. Here, a father, outraged because his son has posed for an underwear advertisement, comes to New York, invades the apartment where his son Timmy lives with another actor, Freddy, and announces that he is taking Timmy home to the small town where the father still lives. The father,Mr. Jaqua, resents his son’s attempt to become an actor.He has urged the boy into a more respectable profession: the law. The story turns on Timmy’s inability to resist his father’s demands and his ultimate acquiescence to them. After Timmy has packed and left the apartment, Freddy is left alone, still loving Timmy but aware that he will never see him again.
This inability of American middle-class culture to accept or deal logically with homosexual love as a valid expression in men’s emotional makeup is also found in Purdy’s novels and elsewhere in his short fiction. The theme occurs in Eustace Chisholm and the Works as well as in The Nephew, In a Shallow Grave, Malcolm, and Narrow Rooms, and this denial of one’s homosexual nature often leads Purdy’s characters to violent acts.
Everything Under the Sun
A slightly suppressed homoeroticism is also found in “Everything Under the Sun,” in Purdy’s collection Children Is All. Two young men, Jesse and Cade, two of those flat-spoken country (or hillbilly) types who often appear in Purdy’s fiction, are living together in an apartment on the south end of State Street (Chicago possibly). Their basic conflict is whether Cade will work or not, which Jesse desires but which Cade is unwilling to do. Cade ultimately remains in full control of the tense erotic relationship by threatening to leave permanently if Jesse does not let him have his own way. Although there is talk of liquor and women, the real sexual tension is between the two men, who, when they bare their chests, have identical tattoos of black panthers. Although neither would acknowledge their true relationship, their sexual attraction is seen through their ungrammatically accurate speech patterns and the subtle erotic undertones to their pairing. “Some of These Days” • The stories in The Candles of Your Eyes exhibit a homoerotic yearning as part of their plot. In “Some of These Days,” a young man (the first-person narrator of the story) is engaged in a pathetic search for the man to whom he refers as his “landlord.” His quest for the elusive “landlord” (who comes to be known merely as “my lord”) takes him through a series of sexual encounters in pornographic motion-picture theaters as he tries desperately to find the man whose name has been obliterated from his memory. “Summer Tidings” • “Summer Tidings,” in the same collection, portrays a Jamaican working as a gardener on an estate, where he becomes obsessed with the young blond boy whose parents own the estate. In a subtle ending, the Jamaican fancies the ecstasy of the perfume of the blond boy’s shampooed hair. “Rapture” • In “Rapture,” an army officer visits his sister, who is fatally ill, and she introduces the man to her young son, Brice. The soldier develops a fetish for the boy’s golden hair, which he regularly removes from the boy’s comb. After the boy’s mother dies and her funeral is held, the uncle and his nephew are united in a wild love scene, a scene that the mother had foreseen when she thought of leaving her son to someone who would appreciate him as she had been appreciated and cared for by her bridegroom. “Lily’s Party” • “Lily’s Party,” in the same collection, is even more explicit in its homosexual statement. In this story, Hobart, a man obsessed with his brother’s wife, follows the woman to her rendezvous with a new lover, a young preacher. Hobart then watches as the woman, Lily, and the preacher make love. Then, the two men alternately make love with Lily and take occasional breaks to eat pies that Lily had cooked for a church social. Finally, the two men smear each other with pies and begin— much to Lily’s consternation—to nibble at each other. As their encounter becomes more explicitly sexual, Lily is left alone, weeping in the kitchen, eating the remains of her pies, and being ignored by the two men.
Purdy’s fiction has a manic—almost surreal—quality, both in the short works and in the novels. In his emphasis on very ordinary individuals plunging headlong into their private hells and their nightmarish lives, Purdy achieves the same kind of juxtaposition of the commonplace, seen through warped configuration of the psyche, that one finds in surrealist art.
Sixty-three: Dream Palace
Nowhere is that quality as clearly to be found as in Purdy’s most famous piece of short fiction, his early novella Sixty-three: Dream Palace, a work that, by its title, conveys the grotesque vision of shattered illusion and the desperation of its characters. Not only does Sixty-three: Dream Palace have the surreal quality of nightmare surrounding its action, but also it contains the latent homoeroticism of many of Purdy’s other works and the distinctive speech rhythms, this time in the conversation of its principal character, the West Virginia boy Fenton Riddleway.
Fenton Riddleway, together with his sick younger brother Claire, has come from his native West Virginia to live in an abandoned house, on what he calls “sixty-three street,” in a large city. In a public park, Fenton encounters a wealthy, largely unproductive “writer” named Parkhearst Cratty. Parkhearst seeks to introduce the young man to a wealthy woman named Grainger (but who is referred to as “the great woman”). Ostensibly, both Parkhearst and Grainger are attracted to the youth, and it is suggested that he will be cared for if he will come and live in Grainger’s mansion. Fenton also likes to spend time in a film theater (somewhat like Purdy’s main character in “Some of These Days”). At one point in the story, Fenton is picked up by a handsome homosexual named Bruno Korsawski, who takes the boy to a production of William Shakespeare’s Othello, starring an actor named Hayden Banks. A violent scene with Bruno serves to let readers realize Fenton’s capability for violence, a potentiality that is revealed later when readers are told that he has killed his younger brother, who would not leave the abandoned house to go and live in the Grainger mansion. Faced with his younger brother’s reluctance, his own desire to escape from both his derelict life, and the burden of the child Claire, Fenton killed the child, and the story’s final scene has Fenton first trying to revive the dead child and then placing the child’s body in a chest in the abandoned house.
Desperation, violence, an inability to deal with sexual longing, and the capacity to do harm even to ones who are loved are found in Sixty-three: Dream Palace, and it may be the most representative of Purdy’s short fiction in its use of these thematic elements, strands of which mark so many of his various short stories. The tragic vision of life that Purdy sees as the human condition thus haunts all of his short fiction, as it does his most famous story.
In 1981 Purdy published Sixty-three: Dream Palace, Selected Stories, 1956-1987, a collection of reprints of twenty-six stories and one novella from the author’s earlier works, including Color of Darkness, Children Is All, and The Candles of Your Eyes. The collection provides readers the opportunity to reappraise the unconventional literary style and trademark blend of quirky characters and bizarre settings Purdy uses to confront racial and sexual stereotypes in American culture.
You May Safely Gaze
In “You May Safely Gaze,” one of his less successful efforts, two narcissistic male exhibitionists put on an open display of affection at a beach, while a male colleague, obsessed with their behavior, complains to his disinterested female companion. Not only does the female companion appear detached, but also the author, who in an attempt to infuse a superficiality to the entire scene, never appears to rise above the surface level himself in constructing a meaningful framework that would help establish the motivations behind his characters’ actions.
Emotional voids, another favorite Purdy theme, is explored with more piercing insight in “Eventide,” the tale of two African American sisters grieving over lost young sons, one of whom simply disappeared, the other having died. Faced with a life without their offspring, the sisters seek their solace in the darkness that surrounds them, as if life beyond it is a threat to the memory of their sons, which represents the only security they have left.
Man and Wife
Husbands and wives fare badly in Purdy’s America when faced with personal crises. In “Man and Wife,” a mentally disabled husband is fired from his job for an alleged sexual deviancy, prompting his wife to accuse him of having no character because “he had never found a character to have” and the husband to bemoan a marriage invaded by “something awful and permanent that comes to everybody.” Only the sense of hopelessness that pervades the marriage is left to bind them in the end. In “Sound of Talking,” the reality of a marriage turned sour becomes starkly evident when a wife’s patience in catering to the demands of a wheelchairbound husband runs dry. In both stories Purdy’s characters are only able to raise their voices in plaintive cries, unable to explain to their spouses or themselves the source of their discomfort and disdain for each other. Attempts at escape often appear feeble, as in the wife’s recommendation in “Sound of Talking” that she and her husband purchase a pet as a remedy for their trouble.
If the promise of marriage seems a distant memory in “Man and Wife” and “Sound of Talking,” it becomes a cruel reality in the author’s “Ruthanna Elder” when a young man learns his prospective bride has been sexually violated by her uncle, causing the groom-to-be to suddenly take his own life. It is a tragic tale, simply told, yet one that illustrates perhaps Purdy’s most enduring theme, that of the human heart’s great potential for great good or great evil.
Plays: Mr. Cough Syrup and the Phantom Sex, pb. 1960; Cracks, pb. 1962, pr. 1963; Wedding Finger, pb. 1974; Clearing in the Forest, pr. 1978, pb. 1980; True, pr. 1978, pb. 1979; A Day After the Fair, pb. 1979; Now, pr. 1979, pb. 1980; Two Plays, pb. 1979 (includes A Day After the Fair and True); What Is It, Zach?, pr. 1979, pb. 1980; Proud Flesh: Four Short Plays, pb. 1980; Strong, pb. 1980; Scrap of Paper, pb. 1981; The Berry-Picker, pb. 1981, pr. 1984; In the Night of Time, and Four Other Plays, pb. 1992 (includes In the Night of Time, Enduring Zeal, The Paradise Circus, The Rivalry of Dolls, and Ruthanna Elder); The Rivalry of Dolls, pr., pb. 1992.
Novels: Malcolm, 1959; The Nephew, 1960; Cabot Wright Begins, 1964; Eustace Chisholm and the Works, 1967; Jeremy’s Version, 1970; I Am Elijah Thrush, 1972; The House of the Solitary Maggot, 1974; In a Shallow Grave, 1976; Narrow Rooms, 1978; Mourners Below, 1981; On Glory’s Course, 1984; In the Hollow of His Hand, 1986; Garments the Living Wear, 1989; Out with the Stars, 1992; Gertrude of Sony Island Avenue, 1997.
Miscellaneous: Children Is All, 1961 (10 stories and 2 plays); An Oyster Is a Wealthy Beast, 1967 (story and poems); Mr. Evening: A Story and Nine Poems, 1968; On the Rebound: A Story and Nine Poems, 1970; A Day After the Fair: A Collection of Plays and Stories, 1977.
Poetry: The Running Sun, 1971; Sunshine Is an Only Child, 1973; She Came Out of the Mists of Morning, 1975; Lessons and Complaints, 1978; The Brooklyn Branding Parlors, 1986.
Adams, Stephen D. James Purdy. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.
Ladd, Jay L. James Purdy: A Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State University Libraries, 1999.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Peden, William. The American Short Story: Front Line in the National Defense of Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
Purdy, James. “Out with James Purdy: An Interview.” Interview by Christopher Lane. Critique 40 (Fall, 1998): 71-89.
Renner, Stanley. “‘Why Can’t They Tell You Why?’ A Clarifying Echo of The Turn of the Screw.” Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 205-213.
Schwarzchild, Bettina. The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968.
Skaggs, Calvin. “The Sexual Nightmare of ‘Why Can’t They Tell You Why?’” In The Process of Fiction, edited by Barbara McKenzie. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969.
Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair. “James Purdy: Playwright.” PAJ 20 (May, 1998): 73-75.