Books We Know As Old Friends
Reprinted in new editions, several books by authors we loved in our youth came back into our reading focus. It was great to make their re-acquaintance.
The reissue of the great (mostly) underappreciated gay author James Purdy’s 1964 novel "Cabot Wright Begins" (Liveright) reminded us of why we loved Purdy novels like "Malcolm," "The Nephew" and "Eustace Chisholm and the Works" in the first place. Simply put, no one else writes quite like JP (1914-2009).
"Mrs. Bickle had arrived in New York during the big drought, the revival of the wig and white-lead lip makeup, fellatio as the favorite subject in bestselling fiction, the campaign by the Commissioner of Markets to put palm-readers, fortune-tellers. and purveyors of the occult out of business, and world sugar irregular."
This is pure Purdy, like the setting of so many small jewels, one by one, in a bracelet of a sentence. Despite the preciousness of the prose, and the soapiness of the plot, the story always barrels right along. Cabot Wright is a satire of the New York literary world, with trenchant portrayals of writers, editors, and publishers. It involves a rapist as a commodity. Out There very much got a chuckle out of it.
The paperback reissue comes on the heels of the first publication of "The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy" (Liveright, in hardback), all 56 of them, including seven previously unpublished tales. In his introduction, filmmaker John Waters suggests, "Randomly select a perfectly perverted Purdy story and read it before you go to sleep, and savor the hilarious moral damage and beautiful decay that will certainly follow in your dreams."
It wasn’t chosen at random, but we started dipping into the volume with a midcareer story, "Some of These Days," in which a young hustler, released from jail, looks for his beloved benefactor in every porno theater in New York. "And so there in my cell I had to confess what did I have for him if it was not love, and yet I had treated him meaner than anybody I had ever knowed in my life, and once come close to killing him." Violence, destitution, amnesia, sordid sex: to use Waters’ metaphor, these are the bon bons in Purdy’s chocolate box. If you read for natural settings, well-rounded characters or verisimilitude, go elsewhere. But if you love a writer who plays with words in impish fashion, Purdy could be for you.