Magazine article Newsweek

Enchanter of Lost Souls

Magazine article Newsweek

Enchanter of Lost Souls

Article excerpt

Byline: Jerome Charyn

The haunting, forgotten genius of James Purdy.

He looks like a zombie in his last photograph, a patch of sunken skin and bones who wrote about skeletons and dreamy half-dead children all his life. He lived in the same closetlike apartment for 50 years--James Purdy, the renegade and recluse of Brooklyn Heights. He wouldn't take part in the escapades of high culture. Reviewers rarely liked his books, considered them bloodless, arcane, and full of misanthropy and a perverse mischief that unsettled everyone unfamiliar with his sly wit.

Like Herman Melville, his closest literary ancestor, he was unremembered when he died in 2009 at age 94, one more Ishmael, with a small coterie of followers. He'd been celebrated for a little while, in the late '50s and '60s, when his acerbic novels and stories were read on college campuses, and after his first novel, Malcolm, arrived on Broadway in 1966, in a superb adaptation by Edward Albee, who also wrote about lost, wayward, and murderous children and young men. Then Purdy fell back into the dark.

I met him during this period of exile, when his own publishers were puzzled by his books and tried to palm him off as a purveyor of realistic fiction. I happened upon one of these novels, In a Shallow Grave, and fell in love with it--a fairy tale full of ghosts. Purdy's hero, Garnet Montrose, can never find a home for himself. He's a war veteran who has returned from the South China Sea with the oddest wound in creation. "When I was blown up, all my veins and arteries moved from the inside where they belong to the outside, so that as that army doc put it, I have been turned inside out in all respects." He's now the color of mulberry juice. People cannot bear the sight of him. They run from Garnet Montrose. His own unnatural body has become a kind of shallow grave. But he isn't morose at all. He sets out to court his "childhood sweetheart," the Widow Rance, and he has to woo her with letters, like a spooky, blood-red Cyrano, since she'd rather fend off an army of black spiders than meet with Montrose. The novel takes us through the radical twists and turns of Montrose's courtship rites, as his arteries and veins suddenly sink back under the skin, and the widow falls in love with his white winter face.

Purdy invited me out to Brooklyn in 1975, after I reviewed his novel in The New York Times. I'd called him the outlaw of American fiction, shunned by critics who couldn't warm to that rough, unfashionable scratch of his in the reader's ear. But I felt completely welcome in his world of syncopated ghosts.

He lived near the Promenade in one of those prewar buildings that could have been some kind of castle with crenellated walls. I remember a modest little man with a slight Midwestern drawl sitting in a ravaged armchair, like some forlorn emperor-clown with ghostly white cheeks, dignified and disheveled at the same time. He rankled in his chair, and I realized how much he resembled some of his own heroes, how he could have been Garnet Montrose, with that winter face of his, or Malcolm, the fatherless boy, sitting on a bench, with a golden, lyrical light behind him, or Cabot Wright, the serial rapist in Cabot Wright Begins, whose attacks were like the outpourings of some strange, quiet poetry. "He didn't kill, he didn't bruise, he didn't cuff or buffet. He used, everybody insisted afterwards, some form of hypnotism. He raped easily and well."

Purdy didn't rant to me. He didn't complain or curse any critics. But he worried that he wouldn't find new readers, that his novels would be forgotten, and it haunted him. …

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