I love James Purdy. Yesterday, while riding the Wilshire Boulevard express bus, I finished The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy. It made me feel kind of lonely, even though the bus was well-populated and I had a forward facing seat. It's important to get a seat on the L.A. buses because when you get off you're in dire need of a chiropractor or Vicodin or a martini. I'd go with the martini, because you can still be witty while dealing with pain; the chiropractor just turns you into a Picasso painting; and Vicodin is what you take to dull the pain of watching a Judd Apatow movie.
In spite of that strange separateness I was experiencing, it was certainly a triumph. Those 700 pages are remarkable. My hero John Cowper Powys said of Purdy:
"James Purdy is the best kind of original genius of our day. His insight into the diabolic cruelties and horrors that lurk all the time under our conventional skin is as startling as his insight into the angelic tenderness and protectiveness that also exist in the same hiding-place. Few there be that recognize either of these things. But Purdy reveals them."
Prior to the Stories, I'd read House of the Solitary Maggot, Jeremy's Version, 63 Dream Palace, and Eustace Chisholm and the Works. I find his prose clean, well-structured; and the tone of his writing, the themes of abandonment, alienation, desperation, greed, jealousy, marbled with peculiar language and habits brings me simultaneous sorrow and Gothic hilarity. Purdy says of his writing: "I think I learned early on that the only subjects I could deal with were impossible. ...if I chose an easy subject I couldn't write it because it wouldn't mean anything to me."
Take for instance, Sound of Talking (1955), where we read about a wife who wants to buy a bird and her paraplegic husband who doesn't:
In the summertime it helped to watch the swallows flying around when the pain was intense in his legs, or to listen to a plane going quite far off, and then hear all sound stop. There was a relief from the sound then that made you almost think your own pain had quit. ...She wanted him to want something so that she could want something, but she knew he would never want at all again. There would be suffering, the suffering that would make him swell in the chair until he looked like a god in ecstasy, but it would all be just a man practicing for death, and the suffering illusion. And why should a man practicing for death take time out to teach a bird to talk?
And then there are the two friends, Mahala and Plumy, in Eventide (1956), two women who are surrounded by the absence of their sons:
"It ain't like there bein' no way out to your troubles: it's the way out that kills you," Mahala said. "If it was goodbye for always like when someone dies, I think I could stand it better. But this kind of parting ain't like the Lord's way."
"You go through all the suffering and the heartache," she said, "and then they go away. The only time children is nice is when they're babies and you know they can't get away from you. You got them then and your love is all they crave. They don't know who you are exactly, they just know you are the one to give them your love, and they ask you for it until you're worn out giving it."
She walked over to the chair where Plumy was and laid her hand on her. Somehow the idea of George Watson's being dead so long and yet still being a baby a mother could love had a kind of perfect quality she liked. She thought then, quietly and without shame, how nice it would be if Teeboy could also be perfect in death, so that he would belong to her in the same perfect way as George Watson belonged to Plumy. There was a comfort in tending the grave of a dead son, whether he was killed in war or peace, and it was so difficult to tend the memory of a son who just went away and never came back. Yet somehow she knew as she looked at Plumy, somehow she would go on with the memory of Teeboy Jordan even though he still lived in the world.
Mr. Evening (1968) is one hell of a story, and I love this sentence: "...then he was back in the chair again, the snow still pelted the shutters, and the east wind raved like lunatics helpless without sedation."
And this one from Short Papa (1976): "I've always wanted to do what was best, Lester," Mama went on, "but parents too are only after all flesh and blood as someday you will find out for yourself."
Mr. Sendel, who sits at a bar every night, believing if he didn't talk he'd shatter like glass, habitually steps away for a few minutes to make a call in a phone booth (remember them?). But you see, Mr. Sendel goes through the motions of dialing numbers that don't exist, and he talks into the mouthpiece to no one. From Reaching Rose (2000):
Mr. Sendel now talked to prevent himself from collapsing like glass into smithereens.
When Mr. Sendel first began going to the telephone booth he had talked only to himself, but this had never really satisfied him. First of all he no longer had anything more he wanted to say to himself. He was an old man, and he did not care about himself; he no longer actually wanted to exist as he was now. Often as he sat at the bar he wished that he could become invisible, disembodied, with just his mind at work, observing. He wished the painful husk of ancient flesh which covered him would be no more, that he might live only remembering the past currents of his life. Perhaps, he reflected, that was all immortality was: the release from the painful husk of the flesh with the mind free to wander without the accumulated harvest of suffering.
And lastly, from Easy Street (2004):
..the presence of the many young visitors and of old Nehemiah and the church choir ladies made Mother Green's last days, if not quite as heavenly as the fortune teller had foretold, nonetheless a peaceable kind of half-light that suggests the growing presence of angels from beyond.