The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, introduction by John Waters; Liveright, 725 pages ($35); Cabot Wright Begins by James Purdy; Liveright, 252 pages ($14.95 paper). If anything conclusively declares a truce in whatever undeclared but underground war might have existed against gay writers in America, this massive evidence of a James Purdy revival does.
In the precincts of literary advocacy, cynics might declare the critics on James Purdy’s side to be either predominantly gay or gay fellow travelers – Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Tennessee Williams. The first encomia came from Edith Sitwell, of all people, and Dorothy Parker. Former Studio Arena director Neal DuBrock arranged for one of Purdy’s plays to premiere in Buffalo. The current and, no doubt, game-changing “Complete Short Stories” may not do for Purdy what Cheever’s “Collected Stories” did for him but it will surely shake things up radically. It’s introduced by John Waters, who asks readers to think of it as a “10-pound box of poison chocolates you keep beside your bed – fairy tales for your twisted mind that could never be described to the innocent.” (Why would one want a box of poison chocolates next to one’s bed? We know what Waters is attempting; let’s pretend he succeeded.)
Purdy died at 94 in 2009. He lived and worked mostly in Brooklyn, surviving the vagaries of literary fashion by remaining apart. Frederick R. Karl in “American Fictions 1940-1980” on “the neglect of James Purdy by both general readers and critics”: “Some writers are ignored because their timing is wrong, or they remain out of the limelight, or else they stick to a few given ideas and refuse to shift as tastes shift … Purdy has missed out at every level … There is no question that the homosexuality underlying his novels has led to some critical coolness, since his view of homosexual behavior does not easily lend itself to a wider application, whether sensually, ethically or morally.” An acquired taste, Karl concludes, but deserving of readers and major critical response, both. His rediscovery was inevitable. Jonathan Franzen’s blurb on the “Stories”: “he takes up where the rest of us leave off.” That roiling sound you hear off in the distance is James Purdy, at long last, joining the mainstream.
– Jeff Simon