James Purdy’s Malcolm

James Purdy’s Malcolm was published fifty years ago, in 1959, when Purdy was forty-four. My copy, a grubby paperback with many phone numbers written on the inner front cover, is a third printing, dated 1965. The blurb uses the adjectives “ribald,” “blasted, “disgusting,” and “mordant” — all possibly code for homosexual — and the cover is purple.

Dorothy Parker is quoted on the front calling Malcolm “the most prodigiously funny book to streak across these heavy-hanging times.” The tone of Malcolm is actually quite chirpy. It feels typewritten. Pre-Stonewall, it presumably also felt risqué, although not long after that it must have started to seem oddly reticent.

Malcolm is an innocent taken up by a society of decadents, but the tone is more reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland than of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Malcolm starts the book as a beautiful fifteen-year-old boy, a focus for desire, waiting expectantly on a bench outside a hotel. Everyone who meets Malcolm loves him, and before long he is waking up in bed with strangers, but what happens in those beds is not described. It’s a bit like reading a pornographic novel with the actual pornographic parts censored out.

Malcolm’s world is a camp pastiche of what in 1959 might have been considered normal American life. Incidentally, there’s a magnate in Malcolm called Girard Girard, leading me to wonder if American fictional characters having the same first name and last name all date from the 1950s-1960s, and why this should be? Humbert Humbert, Major Major Major Major…

Christopher Hawtree’s Guardian obituary of Purdy began, “James Purdy, who has died aged 94, wrote outlandish, idiosyncratic novels that did not sell in large quantities but survive, sometimes in print, while many workaday bestsellers are vague memories.” Here’s an interview with Purdy in very disaffected mood, including the line, “Well, we know now that bread is a poison.”
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