Taken from the introduction to The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy ($35, WW Norton)
Think of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy as a ten-pound box of poison chocolates you keep beside your bed--fairy tales for your twisted mind that should never be described to the innocent. 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. James Purdy writes gracefully disquieting stories for the wicked and here they all are at last. Together. Every single damned one of them!
Many of Purdy's characters are terribly sad. So distressed they "want to be dead like a bug." So lonely that they call the prerecorded weather or time message on the phone for company or go to the doctor every single day for social contact. One man is so filled with sorrow in his old age that he retreats to a phone booth and speaks into the dial tone coming from the receiver about the dead: "They are all gone. All of them." In towns so small (one is described as having a "population about four hundred people including the dead"), isolation is everywhere. "There isn't anything to say about such private sorrow," one of Purdy's characters announces, but yes there is, and James says it with wit, incredible sympathy, and elegant understanding.
His people are angry, too. They "never feel satisfied." One heroine (if you could possibly call her that) is described as "like every damned thing in the world had been permanently screwed for her, like it had all been planned wrong before she even got here."
Many of his characters are defenseless against their own evil and suffer a tragic guilt no one will punish. Purdy loves being a shit-stirrer and can depict hate better than any writer (except perhaps Christina Stead). One fictitious husband is so overcome with fury at his wife's tirade against him that he only "saw her mouth and throat moving with unspoken words." In another story, a son wants his father's love so badly, he hisses black foam from his mouth. Diseased bodies explode onto horrified loved ones. Even inanimate objects can add to the grief of living in Purdy's fiction, like a refrigerator with an agonizing hum that exaggerates the pain of a couple's divorce battles. Nature is treacherous too: the wind steals valuable possessions, even spreads gossip. Birds are dangerous creatures who pilfer precious jewelry from hidden places. Money is the root of all hell, a burden, a curse you can purposely leave to your despised heirs. Purdy's lunatics are out of their minds, but unfortunately not enough so to be oblivious to their own despair.
Yet with all this literary turmoil, Purdy can write about common sense. "Well, when there ain't nothin' else," one damaged optimist reasons, "you got to stoop down and pick up the rotten." His creatures are "crazier than the devil on Christmas," as one announces, but Purdy has the same absurdist sympathy for a clueless dowager as he does for a homeless murderer. There's even crackpot happy endings to some of his stories although the unadventurous reader may not initially understand how Purdy's mismatched partners could possibly describe what they have as any kind of relationship, much less a successful one.
The rewards of tiny sexual attractions and the intense secrets that most can never reveal are Purdy's poetic strength. Erotic tension is always brewing and no one is spared the inner agonizing of frustration and desire. Desperate people, sometimes so horny they "touched you as though to determine if you were flesh or not," do despicable things to one another. Longing is an agony you can't avoid in Purdy's world; searching, always searching for that one sexual being you lost. My favorite damaged soul? The hustler in "Some of These Days" who unsuccessfully hunts his onetime sugar daddy in every porno theater in Manhattan until he gives up, moves into a twenty-four-hour Times Square grind house to live forever, and is finally dragged away by the authorities to a mental institution. This is just one of Purdy's love stories.
Purdy can be as funny as Jane Bowles when he writes about inappropriate attractions, always fractured from reality. His prose may seem old-fashioned at first; a couch is a "davenport," or "Madame Sobey looked at her TV machine a great deal of the time," but when he uses "The End" after the final line of a story it seems so transgressive you can imagine a copy editor today getting nervous. He uses words you seldom hear in real life; a real vocabulary lesson in unpleasantness. "A kind of hoarfrost came over her mouth." What the hell is a hoarfrost? Or "a bad odor, what a fellow I know called fetor." I'm still trying to use the word "fetor" in a sentence and sound as well-spoken as Purdy. Are his pernicious words like one of his characters, written down so shockingly "even flames" will not be able to burn them?
Can Purdy be bad? Well, in a box of chocolates this large, there's bound to be a few left at the bottom that time has made stale. Purdy can be a misogynist. Women are often evil gossips, some even emit fetor (there I go!). A man brutally beats his wife after she endlessly nags she will leave him just because she suddenly finds her married last name ridiculous. Yet when a woman in her sixties shows up completely naked at a male neighbor's front door in another story, Purdy writes about this man's understanding and kindly reaction. His black characters may seem a little sexualized and cartoonish and he does use the N-word, but isn't that a true portrait of how his characters would see things at the time they were written? Isn't Purdy, a "prisoner of decision" himself, just like the flawed humans he writes about?
James is not for everyone. I'm still surprised that brilliant literary critic and novelist Edmund White is not a fan, claiming to be "allergic" to Purdy's work. But for some readers, the special ones who delight in wickedly funny feel-bad books, James Purdy has never been on the "fringes of American literary mainstream," as the New York Times has claimed. No, he's been dead center in the black little hearts of provocateur-hungry readers like myself right from the beginning. Now we are ready to feel the exhilaration of devouring this exhausting new volume of literary treats.
Yes, James Purdy is too much! But he's like a drug one can never get enough of. He makes us light-headed. High. Even sick. Overdosing on James Purdy's stories is a new kind of excitement. And not a bad way to die, either.
John Waters's next book, Carsick, will be published in June 2014 by FSG.