The late (1914–2009) fiction writer, whose work sharply divided critical opinion from the start, receives his due with this vast but fast-moving collection of short stories.
Dip into the book, counsels fugitive filmmaker John Waters in his introduction, and you’ll find “a perfectly perverted Purdy story,” one that, he adds, will yield “hilarious moral damage and beautiful decay that will certainly follow in your dreams.” The description seems apt, though Purdy’s themes, sometimes homoerotic and sometimes obsessive, transcend the merely sexual: Waters’ word “perverted” might more closely track Purdy’s gloomy, angry, mistrustful sense of the world. His characters are often argumentative, bitter, unhappy, full of malign intent. In one particularly unpleasant example, a woman awakens as if from a dream to decide that after years of married life she cannot stand her husband’s name—and by extension, her husband. He repays the sentiment by hitting her “not too gently over the mouth,” making her bleed and drawing a crowd. In another, a young man murders a “young uncle” for what he considers good cause and then shoots himself: “his brains and pieces of skull rushed out from under his fair curly hair onto the glass behind the pillars, onto the screen door, the blood flew like a gentle summer shower.” In yet another, a less violent Chekhov pastiche, a swindle takes flight as a “whim of Fortune,” ruinous for some and a boon for others. You’ll either be enchanted or repelled, and Purdy seems to occupy no middle ground: Whereas Jonathan Franzen has championed him, Edmund White has professed to be “allergic” to Purdy’s work. A bonus: Several of the stories are previously unpublished, some by design.
A completist’s dream, as well as a comprehensive overview of Purdy’s themes and—yes—obsessions.