15 March 2009

"A Source of Endless Grotesqueness": James Purdy Dead

A peculiar man with a curious heart, James Purdy could write.

Here's a typical little selection from In a Shallow Grave (1975), an untidy exposition of sickness, loathing, corporeality and love:

He shook so with sobs then and he was laying across me like I was his last refuge that for a minute I did not realize what was happening. For the first time since I had been ruined and stained like mulberry wine, another human being had forgot how horrible I am, and was touching me and hugging me and asking for comfort, forgetting how I look like some abortion or night-goblin, though as I told you before, in the dark somehow I am sort of good-looking again.
Desperation, deformity, and delectable detail.

Yet, despite the pleas of a small handful of critics, including Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal, Purdy never managed to find widespread recognition. This was, in part, because his topical matter was, in case you missed it above, a little off-beat. Katha Pollitt's review of Narrow Rooms (1978) should give you an idea of Purdyian plotting:
Narrow Rooms, a tale of love among the bondage-and-discipline crowd in, of all places, West Virginia, centers around Roy Sturtevant, a young man known as “the renderer,” because, as we are reminded every 20 pages or so, his grandfather was a renderer of animal fats. Roy dominates Brian, and Brian, Roy’s command, dominates Sid, because Sid has been rejecting his advances ever since eighth grade, but Sid kills Brian first and goes to jail...
Not everyone's cup of tea, and clearly not Pollitt's. But Purdy, a queer self-proclaimed inheritor of Hawthorne and Melville, never thought he was writing for everyone, anyway. In the words of Sontag, his was a "bitter comic vision, in which the flesh is a source of endless grotesqueness."

In my opinion, everyone should try it, at least once. Especially now that he won't have to suffer his fame.*

He died on Friday.


*Imagine how bitter success would have been after uttering these words: “Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability. The worse the author, the more he is known.”


Anonymous said...

You know, I think I read Malcolm around 1962 but I'll be damned if I can remember anything about it. OK, it goes on the list with Saleci and Mari Jo Buhle. Damn. Will any of this be on the final?

Buster said...

I'll let you know if it's on the final if I get there first!

In the meantime, if I were ordering your reading list, I'd do it like this:

1. Purdy: either In a Shallow Grave or Narrow Rooms.

2. MJ Buhle, Feminism and its Discontents -- it's more readable and more interesting than Women and American Socialism, even though I know that's what I recommended in the specific context of a previous post.

3. Salecl's Spoils of Freedom comes last (though it may be a nice companion to Buhle's treatment of feminism and psychoanalysis in the US--not sure, I read them a decade apart). I don't know how your tastes run on theory, though. You might want to gander at the pages available on google books first:


I got a lot out of it, back when I was more patient with theory. Actually, Salecl is pretty good on grounding her work.

One thing I don't recommend reading is that god-awful forum on the futures of socialism in The Nation. Never before have I felt so strongly that that publication should just fold.

Anonymous said...

Interviewer: "Two trains are speeding toward each other on the same track; there's no siding or switch to divert them. What do you do?"

Brakeman applicant: "Run go get my brother."

"Your brother? Why?"

"Cause he ain't ever seen a train wreck."

You make me positively curious about the Nation forum...

Off to read some Saleci.