The American writer James Purdy has died after a considerable illness, according to The New York Times, quoting his “close friend and assistant,” John Uecker. (Other sources call Mr. Uecker Purdy’s companion. Rather a difference, don’t you think?)
I knew about Purdy from two novels in the ’50s and ’60s, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, and Malcolm. They’re fiercely honest, symbolic and rather dense novels, both with Gay lead characters. That Purdy was writing serious fiction about real and imagined Gay lives in that time period says something about his integrity and refusal to compromise. A literary icon he was not, except to other writers. He never had a bestseller. He never had much of a reputation. People were always trying to soft-pedal his work, like he was someone to admire only in secret. The stories he told were gritty, sometimes violent, often tragic, and yet they had their moments of genuine human connection, even love.
He wrote the way we used to live, and some of us still do. I expect some of us always will, wherever the marginalization of human lives is enforced. Which is everywhere.
My copy of Eustace Chisholm dates from the ’60s and has cover art a whole lot sexier than this:
This artwork tries to make his name the big draw. My edition (4th paperback printing, sometime after March 1968) puts a naked man on the cover, which is headlined, “THE SENSATIONAL NOVEL OF PERVERSE LOVE.” You get the idea.
Malcolm goes back even further to 1959. My paperback calls it “A comic novel about the ‘short long life’ of an irresistible young man.” It features a painting of a young blond guy in formal dress and frilly shirt. Even the good reviews were filled with terms like “disgusting and disturbing,” “depravity and perversity,” “a fallen angel, versed in the sinful ways of men.”
Funny, you’d think Purdy was writing about George W. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bear Stearns, not cocksuckers.
And yet in a way he was. But the folks he found interesting, even fascinating, were the people who have no place in this corrupt world.
Then there was this reviewing gem: “Tells of homosexuals, yet it is not soft or faggy.” The Detroit News gets a special torment in hell for printing that.
James Purdy was everything a writer should be, and he lived to be 94 despite the constant grind. He lived to see the death of Wall Street, and with any luck the Detroit News will soon follow them to the grave.++