Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Eustace Chisholm and the Works, James Purdy

Soon after the death of the underappreciated Gilbert Sorrentino, I found myself reading yet another much-neglected great American writer from the same generation, James Purdy. If you haven't yet read anything by Purdy, let me suggest that you will be doing yourself a favor by reading his work. I've now read four of his novels, having just finished Eustace Chisholm and the Works, and I have every reason to believe that I will read everything he's written (provided I can find it all).

The Purdy books I've read so far are deceptively simple. Elsewhere, I said of The Nephew that "a description of its so-called content would be unremarkable and uninteresting" but that "Purdy makes it interesting". A description of Eustace Chisholm could easily be rather more lurid than that of The Nephew, if one focused on the events. There is a fair amount of sex and talk about sex in the book, primarily sex between men; there is an unpleasant, illegal abortion (the third or fourth, we are told, for the character having it performed); there is torture. I imagine that it is this content, and the narrator's non-judgmental attitude towards it, that made the book controversial (so the back cover says) when it was first published in 1967.

It is 1937, Chicago. The Great Depression is in full swing. Eustace Chisholm, a self-styled poet who writes his verse on scraps of newspaper, is the figure around whom the rest of the novel is organized, one of those characters who always knows what everyone else is up to and who has (often questionable) advice for everybody. Most of the men are matter-of-factly "queer" (the word used in the book), at least part of the time. Eventually it emerges that the central character is Daniel Haws, a flophouse landlord who, in spite of himself, falls for young Amos Ratcliffe, one of his tenants. He refuses to admit to himself that he is in love with Amos. Then once he admits it to himself, he is unable to act on it, to tell Amos. Ashamed of himself for his inability to admit his true feelings for Amos, he leaves and re-enters the Army. Stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, he starts writing to Eustace, telling him everything he was unable to tell Amos:
"I've got a sickness may not have a name....I'm sick to the very bottom of me. I hurt everywhere. Inside, I'm all hurt and ever have been. I've got a sickness which may have a name, and if it does, why name it to me? I won't remember it anyhow. Could you say, Ace, I'm boy-sick? If you want to call it that, I'd have half-admitted it in Chicago, but my sickness is so big now I couldn't feel any name would be right to contain it. Boy-sick, me that's mounted all them whores. I'm a whore's delight. Yet I'm boy-sick, Eus, if you want to say so. I'm lying here still under the same Spanish moss, it's not my country. My sickness, though, didn't come from being down here, it didn't come from the long hours in the mines or me being husband-son to my Ma. I must have come into this world with this hanging over my head, Eus: I was meant to love Amos Ratcliffe, without ever being a boy-lover and that was written down in my hand..."
(In an interview, Purdy described the problem thus:
...a young man who’s really an Indian chief can’t reconcile the fact that after nothing but sexual relations with women, he suddenly realizes he’s in love with this young boy. He can’t face that in himself. And I think that his problem is everybody's problem. We can’t face what is most ourselves, what is deepest in ourselves.)
While in the Army, Haws finds himself attracting the attentions of the sadistic Captain Stadger. Ultimately, realizing that he has abandoned the one thing that could have made him happy, he sheds any remaining self-protectiveness he may have left and submits fully to the bizarre depredations of the Captain:
Daniel waited now with the most extreme impatience for the reappearance of Captain Stadger, and suddenly the terrible thought presented itself that perhaps the captain would not appear. He knew then that he counted greatly on the officer's coming, that he counted above all else on receiving whatever it was he was to receive finally from his hands, that he counted on the "release" by which Stadger would sever him from all and everything he had had connection with before. He waited now for the captain with the impatience with which he had waited, in his hidden soul, for Amos. He was ready and he was at full surrender.
Purdy tells his story using a variety of methods, including going forward and back in time in the guise of letters, often entering into the letter, so to speak, moving from the first person of a given letter, being read by one character, to the third person of the narrator. As the above excerpts show, he is as comfortable in the language of the uneducated Haws, as he is in the elegant, if apparently plain, language of the third-person narrator.

Purdy does not flinch from the seedy, but he does not romanticize it either. He conveys a real sense of the desperation and poverty of most of the characters, of life in the Great Depression, but the book is not, strictly speaking, "realism"--there is, for example, an element of the supernatural in Eustace Chisholm, as Eustace believes he has been given the ability to see events before they happen--indeed, one of the key moments in the plot comes about as a result of Eustace trying to rid himself of this "gift". Purdy is able to juggle these disparate elements and create a story with unexpected affective power. It is an excellent novel.

There is not much on the web about Purdy. He appears to be one of those writers who gets reviewed but is on the whole largely ignored, and I haven't noticed much interest on the blogs yet, outside of Dan Green (it's because of a post by Dan that I decided to seek out Purdy in the first place) and the occasional comment. Take a look at the James Purdy Society web site, and this other interview. And this New York Times piece by Gore Vidal on the occasion of the reissue of Eustace Chisholm. But by all means read the books.

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