Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, by James Purdy

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Collected in their entirety for the first time, The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy takes the reader on a journey from the gritty and alienating world of urban America in the 1950s to charming fabulist tales like "Kitty Blue".

American novelist and short story writer James Purdy (1914 - 2009) has an impressive list of fans, including Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal, James M. Cain, Edith Sitwell and Jonathan Franzen, to name a few. Despite this impressive fan base, he’s not that well known, a literary fringe dweller.

Purdy was gay, and this sensibility comes out subtly in his short stories, and somewhat more overtly in his novels, especially the flamboyant and often outrageous I Am Elijah Thrush (1972). This complete collection, the first to collect all the stories in one volume, plus seven that were previously unpublished, spans Purdy’s writing career from 1939 up to 2003. It also includes the haunting 1956 novella 63: Dream Palace. As you’d expect, a writer’s full catalogue of short fiction over a five decade period must necessarily be a history of the author’s consciousness and personal development.

Many of the stories from Purdy’s early period describe American urban life, from a viewpoint of alienation and loneliness. Many of the characters in these short stories exist on the social fringes; they are fractured people with fractured psyches, misfits trying to get along as best they can. These early characters are people passing as normal, but secretly quite disturbed. One touching story describes an old man in a bar who continually uses the public phone to make “calls” to old friends, friends who are clearly no longer living. The barman goes along with this, pretending the man still has lots of friends, but of course the reality is deeply sad.

The stories from Purdy’s middle to later career develop into, perhaps you could argue, more a mirror of the author’s soul. We get Purdy the fabulist and humourist; the writer with a distinctly ironic view of life. The style in these stories is often a mixture of Baroque and Southern Gothic; the prose inspired by the cadences of the King James Bible Purdy so admired. In these stories the author tends to make up extraordinary and fantastic situations. There are heiresses down on their luck, exotic birds that steal jewelry, sons that run away to live fabulous yet dissolute lives in New York City. It goes on and on. Exemplifying this style is “Kitty Blue”, a wonderfully conceived and executed story about an opera singer and her brilliant companion, a highly intelligent cat named Kitty Blue. When Kitty Blue is abducted and forced to work in a cheap vaudeville theatre, playing the guitar and dancing no less in his velvet breeches, the opera singer employs a clairvoyant to track down her beloved Kitty Blue.

Purdy’s writing is often rich, strange and unsettling. Reading these stories recalls the world of David Lynch, especially the weird characters that come and go in Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks series.  Lynch’s eerie and compelling Eraserhead pretty much sums up the emotional landscape of the early Purdy stories, especially the dark and alienated 63: Dream Palace.

James Purdy is not for everyone. He is strange and unsettling. But for those seeking out an alternative vision of America, and an alternative literary consciousness, then The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy is just the ticket.

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, by James Purdy. Published by Norton. ISBN: 9780871407757  $29.95

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