The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
752 pages, $35.
YOU BEGIN to get at the problem of James Purdy by noting, as almost everyone writing on him does, that Dame Edith Sitwell praised him: “I am convinced that, long after my death, James Purdy will come to be recognized as one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.” Dorothy Parker and Langston Hughes, more recent than Sitwell but not all that recent, were among Purdy’s admirers. Marianne Moore called him “a master of vernacular.” Edward Albee adapted a Purdy novella for the stage. But even adding Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal to the list doesn’t take away the sense that Purdy (1914–2009) is not exactly a writer for our times.
Nevertheless, when Reed Woodhouse and I were teaching a continuing education class on gay male literature, Purdy was central to the reading list. We would begin the first class with “Walking to the Ocean This Morning,” a two-page story by Sam D’Allesandro, who died in 1988 at age 31, which starts: “The truth of the matter is I like to be beaten and then fucked like a dog.” This is shocking, yes, and contemporary in its first-person, matter-of-fact admission of aberrant sexual pleasure. Then we’d turn to “Rapture,” published in 1981 when Purdy was 67. It’s about a young, dying widow, mother to a teenage son. Her brother, just out of the military, comes to visit. After she dies, her brother and her son become lovers.
But that’s not the shocking part. That comes when the mother realizes that her brother physically desires her son: “Mrs. Muir felt, she did not know why, the same way she had when her father, the day of her wedding, had held her arm and they had walked down the aisle of the church together, and her father had then presented her to her bridegroom. She had felt at the moment a kind of bliss. She now felt she could give up her son to someone who would cherish him as her bridegroom had cherished her.” Think about it: the mother can die comfortably because her brother will do to her son what her husband did to her. Merely liking to get fucked like a dog pales in comparison.
Michael Schwartz, a full-time writer based in Boston, is an associate editor of this magazine.