An interview with the “outlaw of fiction,” James Purdy
“Neither the radio nor the police mentioned one dead man very often. That is to say, Brian McFee. They did report of course that he had been dug up from his coffin and brought to the house in what authorities believed was to have been the enactment of some weird and terrible rite. Words failed to explain it, in the phrasing of the report, and after awhile the disinterred body was no longer mentioned in print or on the airwaves… It was whispered everywhere though, and never forgotten in this community. ‘Our little mountain town here, in remote West Virginia,” Dr. Ulric said later, “has had its veil torn away, and there have been revealed things just as terrible as those we read about in great seaports and immense metropolises the world over. Only more terrible, I do believe… In my day it was the story of Jesse and Ruthanna Elder… Now it’s these young men who have such strong passions…We’ve been brought up to date’”
— From James Purdy’s
Long before Annie Proulx’s cowboy love story, ”Brokeback Mountain” caused waves on the literary scene, James Purdy’s 1978 novel “Narrow Rooms” tackled the subject of love and sexual passion among four men in the remote Appalachians; Gore Vidal declared the book “a dark and splendid affair by an authentic American genius.” The novel has all the primal pull and force of a Jacobean revenge tragedy, as the young men caught up in forces beyond their control, resort to extreme measures and plunge headlong into self-destruction.
Purdy’s pre-Stonewall novel, “Eustace Chisholm and the Works,” examined gay life in South Side Chicago during the Depression, and particularly, the relationship between a young, down-and-out Adonis, Amos Ratcliffe—aka “Rat”—and a self-loathing ex-soldier, Daniel Haws, who can only face his feelings for the boy while sleep-walking, and pays a terrible price for his denial. The book was a favorite of Tennessee Williams, and gay British author Angus Wilson, who called it “(a) remarkable achievement. Purdy is master of the mixing of the horrible, the wildly funny. and the very sad.”
Both novels, along with “The House of the Solitary Maggot” and “Jeremy’s Version” have been recently re-issued in handsome paperbacks by Carroll and Graf, and could help to bring this under-exposed gay visionary to new generations of readers.
A champion of his earlier work, the Sapphic Dame Edith Sitwell observed, “Mr. Purdy is one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language… [His] stories tell of the suffering, blundering cruelty of love…” Purdy’s first “absolutely, infuriatingly, original” (Newsweek) full-length novel, “Malcolm “(1959), was a serio-comic “Pilgrim’s Progress” about a young “man without qualities” abandoned by his father, who is lured into the society of decadent adults by a collection of pixilated and priapic poseurs, predators, and plutocrats—a sort of urban “Huckleberry Finn” gone haywire-and was hailed as an American classic that demonstrated the new vitality of the novel form. Even Dorothy Parker, known more for her sarcasm than her encomiums, found the Voltarian “Malcolm,” “the most prodigiously funny book to streak across these heavy-hanging times… [Purdy] is a writer of the highest rank in originality, insight and power… Those who read him are his for life… and, if in the two thousands, there is a grain of consciousness left among my dust, I will still believe it..”
Edward Albee was so entranced by “Malcolm,” he adapted it for a quixotic 1966 Broadway stage production. Director John Waters, is among the writer’s countless fans, and waxes poetic over him, calling Purdy’s latest collection of tales “Moe’s Villa and Other Stories,” (Carroll & Graf), “as deep as the word eternity itself… Such stirring fairy tales for both the innocent and depraved.”
Last February, Vidal reviewed Purdy’s “Moe’s Villa and Other Stories” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, reiterating his praise for the writer, and observed that the “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” has more than stood the test of time, and is as raw and moving a read as ever. But don’t look for it to be listed in Oprah’s Book Club.
Purdy was born in suburban Ohio in 1923. Before becoming a full-time writer, he lived in Chicago, taught English in Latin America, and lived Europe. He is now a full-time resident of Brooklyn Heights, where he lives in a small apartment in a regal Victorian building that might be the setting of one of his novels. Although reclusive these days, the octogenarian Purdy is a courtly and gracious host, who exudes Golden Age civility.
Michael Ehrhardt: Edward Albee calls you a true outlaw of fiction, and that you’re style of writing is truly sui generis. You are also reported to be a recluse, who shuns publicity and envisions cocktail book parties as a living Hell.
JP: It’s true that I rarely leave my own neighborhood. The city has become very daunting, and the subways feel very sinister.
ME: Just last month, the Mercantile Library [of New York] held a dinner reception at the Century Club to give you an award. You made your way into the wilds of Manhattan—how was the experience?
JP: I was flabbergasted that they honored me for “Eustace Chisholm and the Works,” of all things!
ME: Why flabbergasted?
JP: Well, the critics stoned me alive when it first came out [in 1967]. Some people didn’t think I’d ever be published again.
ME: The novel deals with homoerotic love in a frank, honest way. You were really bucking the trend back then. Was that your intention?
JP: I wasn’t trying to make controversy; I was just doing what a writer has to do.
ME: And that is…?
JP: Be true to his own character… To tell the story as it develops from him. I’ve always written that way. When I taught writing [at NYU], I used to tell students to write from their inner selves, because “You don’t know what you know.” If you write to please other people, you will not succeed. I can’t imagine writing otherwise. When I started sending out stories to publishers, most of them didn’t know what to make of them. The New Yorker always wanted me to alter them to suit their purposes, but I wouldn’t. They’d be put through a shredder. They wanted formula stuff—which I’m just not capable of.
ME: I see you have several photos of Edith Sitwell on your mantelpiece; she was a sort of fairy godmother to you.
JP: Oh, dear Dame Edith! If it wasn’t for her, I would have never been heard of.
ME: Exactly how did an obscure young American writer come to her attention?
JP: After I’d written my story collection, “The Color of Darkness,” I sent copies out to various places. I always liked Edith Sitwell’s poetry, and just on an impulse sent her my stories, along with my novella, “63: Dream Palace.” She was staying at Castello di Montefugione in Italy at the time, and said she almost fell down the castle steps after reading them. She loved them all and got her publisher to take them on.
ME: “63:Dream Palace” is very intense.
JP: Yes… After reading the ending, Dame Edith is supposed to have said: “My former life has come to an end!”
ME: It’s a heart-breaking novella. Those two runaways from West Virginia, living in a rotting old house in decadent Chicago…Was any of that based on your experiences there?
JP: To some extent… I thought Chicago was a pretty scary city. Very de-humanizing at the time.
ME: The ending of the book is a shocker.
JP: When Dame Edith read the ending, where Fenton lifts his poor strangled brother, Claire into the cedar chest and says: “Up we go then, motherfucker,” she said she was horrified. They had to change it to “bugger” to please the British censors. Yet, the word was just recently included in the Oxford English Dictionary!
ME: “Narrow Rooms” has been re-issued too. That’s pretty harrowing—with disinterment of a lover’s body, and a character getting himself crucified to a barn door. Where did that rise from?
JP: Well, I got crucified for that. It was actually partly based on a true story about a young man who had himself crucified to protest the Vietnam War. Derek Jarman wanted to make a film of it, and came to New York with his friend [Keith Collins] to discuss it. Unfortunately, Jarman died of AIDS shortly after.
ME: Your “In A Shallow Grave” was made into a film with pretty boy Michael Biehn [of “Terminator” fame] playing the facially disfigured protagonist, and Patrick Dempsey playing his potential love interest.
JP: Hollywood toned down all of the gay love story… It’s just implied. They always want to water-down my stories to make them more palatable.
ME: You seem to use gross physical metaphors to reflect a character’s psychic state. The image of Aiken placing his brother Owen’s eyeballs into his mouth is as gruesome as it is unexpected. It’s also poetic in a bizarre way.
JP: I know!
ME: Yet, you don’t like it when critics refer to your work as “American gothic.”
JP: Gothic sounds too much like “Frankenstein” or Poe. Once, Edmund White wouldn’t review “Solitary Maggot,” saying he didn’t care for Southern Gothic writing; which is nonsense, since I come from the Midwest and lived so long in Brooklyn. As a result, the book wasn’t reviewed in The New York Times, and was pretty much over-looked by the mainstream.
ME: Ed White told me he’s “allergic” to your work, but he wouldn’t expand on why. John Waters mentioned he loves your books, and the fact that even some gay readers find them controversial. You’re a pariah among pariahs. That’s quite an achievement. Like getting on the Vatican Index of Forbidden Literature.
JP: Well, I’m used to brickbats from every quarter.
ME: The Mercantile Library’s press release says that your writing reflects your “obsession with exploitation and abuse of innocents, disjunctions within ordinary families, loneliness, and the mid-century’s subculture of homosexuality, sexual experimentation, and depravity.” I can agree with the first parts, but I don’t get the depravity part. Transgressive, maybe.
JP: I only write about human nature, as honestly as I can.
ME: Perhaps now that your work’s being re-issued, a new generation of readers will find it. This year, the Mercantile Library decided to pick one writer to award their prize for Excellence in Fiction, and that was Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections”), who decided to nominate you. Franzen said that he considers “Eustace Chisholm,” “one of the best post-war novels in American literature,” and that anything your read afterwards will seem “posturing and dishonest,” including the early Chicago novels of Saul Bellow. The prize is given annually “to recognize a work of fiction by a living American author who deserves recognition and a wider readership”
JP: Yes, that was a surprise.
ME: Are you familiar with Franzen’s work?
JP: No. But I hardly read books any more. But I was very moved, when he [Franzen] walked to the back of the dining room and crouched down by my chair to talk and posed for pictures.
ME: It must have all been a pretty heady night. You bolted before the dessert course.
JP: It certainly was. But, I was looking forward to getting back to Brooklyn.
ME: Are you planning another novel?
JP: I’m working on a new one I might call “The Manse.” It still has a way to go.
Michael Ehrhardt is the author of “The Gay Gaze: Queer Films/Out Filmakers,” and can be reached at [email protected]
James Purdy, who has been writing candidly about love and sexual passion among men for nearly 50 decades, has recently had several of his novels reissued, introducing a new generation of readers to this under-exposed gay visionary.