In February of 2005, James Purdy finally seemed destined for general discovery. Carroll & Graf reissued his 1967 novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works just months after bringing out Moe’s Villa, his first book of new fiction in seven years. Around the same time, Gore Vidal wrote an appreciation in The New York Times Book Review in which he lauded Purdy as “an authentic American genius.” But three years later, whatever brief renaissance the novelist, story writer, poet and playwright experienced had all but disappeared. Three more reissues followed to general indifference and nothing has been published since. So why is it that Purdy, a writer possessed of strong narrative gifts and lucid prose who is unafraid to risk a crowd-pleasing sensationalism, an artist who is both generally accessible and thrillingly engaging, has never found much of a consistent audience, even within such condescendingly limited groupings as “gay fiction”? That remains a difficult question to answer, since it’s hard to believe that Purdy’s books are incapable of inspiring even the cult following that’s largely eluded them, but it now seems that, whatever his literary merits, he’s destined to remain a marginal figure.
One reason Purdy’s novels remain so compelling is his facility at representing extreme states of emotional turbulence, representations that center around (primarily gay) love affairs and which often (as in Eustace Chisholm and Narrow Rooms) entail the commission of gruesome acts of physical violence. As Purdy puts it, “I usually write about a person in crisis, because that’s the time we tell the truth.” But the totality of his achievement is by no means contained within such a reductive template. He’s also a provocative satirist (as evidenced in the everything’s-a-target free-for-all of Cabot Wright Begins) and a gifted chronicler of the varied makeup of rural communities. But, a sense of emotional extremism is never far from the surface in any of Purdy’s major works and it is presumably this quality of uncompromised expressivity that led the novelist Jerome Charyn to label Purdy the “outlaw of American fiction” and which makes his writings so compulsively and perpetually readable.
Essentially a chaste love story intercut with some grotesque/mystical touches, Purdy’s finest novel, 1975’s In a Shallow Grave, tracks the complex emotional geometry of four characters living by the Virginia coast. Garnet Montrose, returned to his empty farm after being wounded in Vietnam, is marked by a physical deformity so repulsive (his veins and arteries have moved to the outside of his body) that no one can look at him without feeling the urge to vomit. Seeking a helper to read to him and deliver letters to his childhood sweetheart—the Widow Rance, who refuses to see him in person—Garnet has difficulty finding anyone for the job, until suddenly he’s granted two aides who divide the duties between them. The “ideal applicant,” Daventry, a toothless boy from Utah, delivers the letters while Quintus, a young black man (who complicates the set-up by bringing into play Garnet’s conflicting racial attitudes), attends to the reading, an arrangement that effects a temporary stability in the older man’s life.
But Garnet’s staid romantic feelings for the Widow Rance soon give way to a stormier love for Daventry, a love that has difficulty finding proper expression since as Garnet notes, he’s “never loved a man before.” In Purdy, gay love is never allowed smooth consummation. It either remains perpetually frustrated or finds its expression only through extreme acts of violence. In Shallow Grave, we see both the potential for this violent consummation (particularly in the self-destructive actions of Daventry) and the ultimate frustration of Garnet’s romantic yearning. But, if Garnet’s relationship with Daventry is never given greater physical expression than a few comforting embraces and a single kiss, his love for the younger man is elevated into a sort of quasi-mysticism thanks to his narration’s continual emphasis on his lover’s mysterious qualities (which seem to include a number of otherworldly powers), as well as its suggestion of a sort of fateful inevitability to both their coming together and their eventual separation.
This mystical element is given its most concrete representation in an astonishing sequence where Daventry’s self-destructive tendencies give way to an act of ritual sacrifice. With Garnet threatened with foreclosure for the non-payment of taxes, Daventry assures him “I will save your land and property if you will commune with me.” The ensuing ceremony, a perverse variation of the traditional Communion, finds Daventry slicing open his chest, mixing his blood with wine and then serving up the mixture to Garnet and Quintus. That his act represents a sacrifice is made clear through the understanding that its consummation will lead to the permanent separation of the two lovers. When the next morning Garnet finds his back taxes suddenly paid, we know that Daventry’s mystical Communion has worked its ends, but we know too that Garnet will never see him alive again.
If at first blush, Purdy doesn’t seem to be anyone’s idea of a major prose stylist, his feeling for the patterns of individual speech, often expressed in first-person narration, tends to surprise the reader with an unforeseen potency. A seamless grafting of a decisively literary sensibility onto an unschooled “primitive” language, Garnet’s narrative voice combines a specifically rural idiom (with its inevitable bibilical undertones) and a certain unaffected poeticism. This combination of the high and the low, alternating compact expression with strings of awkward repetitions, creates a hybrid prose of the type that we’ve come to recognize as distinctly “American,” that “authentic” speech that is expertly shaped by a consciousness far more sophisticated than its supposed speaker. Here is Garnet attempting to articulate his complex feelings about his lover:
“Daventry was crazy in a way you will never find in any other man. He was divine-crazy or heaven-crazy, I mean God had touched him, for instance when he said he loved me I knew what he meant, but I wanted to play the part of an ordinary soldier from Virginia and spurn him, when the truth of it was I loved him from the beginning but my deformity, my being turned inside out, would not allow me at first to see he loved me for what I am. I knew then that there was God, and that Daventry had been sent for me, and I knew also that he would leave me. That is why I didn’t care anything about what the sheriff said and this puzzled Daventry, for he knew he was going to leave me, but he wanted me to be left in a safe quiet place, but I didn’t care any more. Of course I still loved the Widow Rance, Georgina, would always love her, but Daventry was more. When he played the harmonica I knew he was not human.”
Purdy’s tortuous syntax mirrors the unfulfilled yearnings and the strivings for understanding of his disaffected hero while the mystical undercurrent of the language (“divine-crazy” “not human”) reflects a straining after the sublime that is no less moving for its being articulated in such unstudied speech. In passages like these, Purdy achieves a rare mastery of the sort of “common-folk” poetry associated with Twain and Faulkner, but spoken in his own inimitable voice. That this voice has been largely ignored for the more than fifty years Purdy’s been working (notwithstanding the modest success of his first, and least typical novel, Malcolm), is an unfortunate and largely inexplicable oversight. His body of work, with In a Shallow Grave as an outstanding example, deserves to be read and re-read and finally, to be awarded a prominent, and permanent, place among the lasting achievements of American fiction.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.