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.”

3 thoughts on “James Purdy’s Malcolm”

  1. Most bread contains bromides.

    The question is, what will posterity make of Purdy?

  2. As to that, I welcome any thoughts. I would say characterization was perhaps not Purdy's strongest point, but his prose certainly has a distinctive flavor that stays with one. It is a pity there isn't an edition of Malcolm illustrated by Edward Gorey.

    Perhaps I was so struck by the lurid physical qualities of the paperback because of the contrast with the last Purdy book I read, a university library copy of an elegant limited-edition work in a distinctiy fussy font…

  3. Italo Calvino's American diary 1959-1960

    Purdy is a very pathetic character, middle-aged, big and fat and gentle, fair and reddish in complexion, and clean-shaven: he dresses soberly, and is like Gadda {http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_Emilio_Gadda} without the hysteria, and exudes sweetness. If he is homosexual, he is so with great tact and melancholy. At the foot of his bed is weight-lifting equipment; above it, a nineteenth-century English print of a boxer. There is a reproduction of a Crucifixion by Rouault, and scattered all around are theology books. We discuss the sad state of American literature, which is stifled by commercial demands: if you don't write as the "New Yorker" demands, you don't get published. Purdy published his first book of short stories at his own expense, then he was discovered in England by Edith Sitwell, and subsequently Farrar Straus oublished his work, but he does not even know Mrs Cudahy {http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Farrar-Straus-and-Giroux-Inc-Company-History.html}, and the critics don't understand him, though the book {= The Nephew} is, very slowly, managing to sell. There are no magazines that publish short stories, no groups of writers, or at least he does not belong to any group. He gives me a list of good novels, but they are nearly all unpublished works which have not been able to find a publisher. Good literature in America is clandestinem lies in unknown authors' drawers, and only occasionally someone emerges from the gloom breaking through the leaden cloak of commercial production.

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