In 2000 I had the opportunity to write a 10,000 word bio/crit piece on James Purdy for Scribner’s American Writers Series. Jay Parini, who was editor of those tomes at the time, gave me the green light when I suggested a piece on Purdy. James was always on my mind as a great writer who was under read. This would be my chance to champion his words.
In the course of writing this piece I was able to interview him on the phone for hours. When news of his death at age 94 reached me on Friday (the 13th, no less) I immediately recalled his frail yet wizened voice in my head, his words ringing clear in my memory banks, steady, sharp, ancient, opinionated and brilliant. I was saddened when the reality bit me like a hidden woods snake, I would hear the voice no more. Then suddenly, I was comforted by the memory of some wisdom Allen Ginsberg shared with me after my mother died in 1986. He said, “we’re next.”
Long after I finished my piece on Purdy we continued our conversations on the phone until the end, though trailing off in the last years as he became more frail and tired. It became increasingly difficult to catch him at a good time. I was reduced to sending him birthday cards every year in the summer. I hoped he was having a peaceful descent into oblivion.
James Purdy was never plugged into email so we wrote each other frequently. We addressed each other as “Esquire.” He sent poems and stories he was working on, signed copies of his books and advice on my own writing. Nothing was better than to see his familiar scrawl in my mail box.
We both grew up in Ohio and he often spoke on the phone about his childhood memories such as visiting herb doctors in the country with his mother who was an early believer in holistic healing (at least in Ohio). He recalled the glory days of Cuba when he lived there after WW II and how dark and exotic the gay scene was during those years. We spoke of everything from strange health cures (he drank wheat grass juice and soaked his toes in his urine), to the tragedy of the damming of the Yangtze River. James was nothing if not opinionated. Thurber was “vulgar,” Shirley Jackson and her husband had been out to get him. In fact the whole literary community, he felt, undervalued him as a writer. He did love Dame Edith Sitwell who sang his praises early on as well as John Cowper Powys. The man definitely had his A lists and shit lists but always laughed gently when he expressed himself. I hope his voice never stops ringing in my head.
So get off your ass and read some Purdy. My personal favorites, though it is hard to pick, are The Nephew, House of the Solitary Maggot, Gertrude of Stoney Island Avenue and all his short stories and poetry. Dig in. No one plundered the American Psyche like James Purdy, he was the grand daddy of black humor (but would disagree strongly when I called his writing “gothic”) and plowed his subject matter, sowing and reaping a combination of strangely dark and humorous tableaus that as far as I have seen, have never been close to being matched.
Damn James, you were my Ohio Home Boy. What am I going to do now?
Here is a favorite poem he sent me way back when. Take a bow James Purdy Esquire.
(Note; read to the tune of ‘Beautiful Dreamer.” Mr. McFist is Mephistopheles)
have you no nuts?
have you killed love?
Your black chevalure
is on the block!
& who’s auctioneer?
Why, Mister McFist!