James Purdy’s Provocative Ambiguities

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IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Making It, arch-homophobe Norman Podhoretz describes the sense of urgency that surrounded the appearance of a new novel in the 1950s, which he attributed to the “tyranny of taste” that thrives in “politically quiescent periods,” when readers are desperate to be told by political authorities what to believe and by cultural authorities what to enjoy.

            This formulation is of no help, however, when one tries to explain the fervor with which gay readers greeted the publication of James Purdy’s Malcolm in 1959. A friend once described to me how, on Fire Island that summer, rows of men bronzed on the beach as they read the novel, forgetting even to cruise the passers-by, in order to be prepared for the discussion that would invariably dominate conversation at that evening’s social gatherings. “Night after night, we argued at dinner [over]what each character represented and what the bizarre actions meant,” my friend recalled. “For Halloween that year, people dressed as Malcolm, Kermit, Cora Naldi, and Estel Blanc. One group even came to a party as Madame Girard and her ten identical young men.”

            Malcolm is the story of an inexperienced fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy who sits daily on a golden bench outside a luxurious hotel, waiting for his father, who seems to have forgotten about him. (Malcolm learns his age only after he opens his mouth for a curious mortician who examines the boy’s molars.) Malcolm’s education is taken in hand by Dr. Cox, a preening astrologer, who lures the boy off his bench and encourages him to forget about his father and instead call on a number of addresses of people who can introduce him to the larger world. Malcolm’s new contacts include the most outré denizens of both high and low society, including: a socially self-conscious “Abyssinian” mortician; a midget artist and his prostitute-cum-stenographer wife; an imperious society matron and her fabulously wealthy husband; a nearsighted female portrait painter with a fondness for black jazz musicians; a motorcycle rider who’s the leader of a set that styles itself “the contemporaries”; a doting tattoo artist; the madam of a Mexican bordello; and the sexually voracious, drug-addicted rhythm-and-blues singer whom Malcolm, not yet sixteen, marries shortly before his death. The novel’s refusal to specify the setting or the year leaves these eccentric characters unmoored in time and place.

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Raymond-Jean Frontain is professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas.

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