Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Nephew by James Purdy

The Nephew was James Purdy’s follow-up to Malcolm, but the two novels are radically different in style. Where Malcolm was eerily surreal, with an uncanny edge to it, The Nephew is almost pastoral, a slow, reflective look at small-town America and the pain of living in a world that moves too fast. ‘Exits and entrances’, a character tells us, that’s what mid-century America has brought, resulting in people ‘never being anywhere’.

But while, stylistically, the two novels are very different, this theme of life runing too fast reveals a definite commonality between them – and, indeed, it appears to be a theme which runs through Purdy’s entire oeuvre: we are again in the territory of disconnection, of a crucifying inability to communicate, of silent suffering and mutual incomprehension. These are people who understand each other not at all, and who struggle even to recognise their own stunted emotions. They are greatly to be pitied. In the hands of a lesser writer than Purdy, they would be self-indulgent, or bathetic, or ugly, or unpleasant. The characters Purdy creates in this novel, particularly the mains, Alma and her brother Boyd, are real people suffering real pain, being destroyed by real grief.

This was a controversial novel in its day (published in 1961), telling as it does the story of a (possible, never explicitly proven) homosexual love affair between a young man, Cliff, who subsequently goes to war in Korea and is posted missing in action, and another young man from his home town, Vernon. What makes it astonishingly powerful is that this is not the principal theme of the novel; indeed, it is only late in the novel that this theme emerges. There is no didacticism here; the homosexuality is not being written about as an “issue” with the characters only existing because they are homosexual and the novel only existing for the reason of debating it. Nearly fifty years later, writers still cannot routinely create characters who just happen to be gay (or black, or Muslim), and which state is not the crucial element of the plot. It is the same problem Percival Everett bemoans when he says he wishes to be read as a writer, not as an African-American. Purdy recognised this and dealt with it as early as 1961. He is a writer to be admired, for this alone.

And for much more. This is a powerful novel of loss and pain. At its centre is the inability of the main characters, Alma and Boyd, who are Cliff’s aunt and uncle and who looked after him as a child when his parents were killed, to deal with the depth of emotion they feel when he is posted missing in action. They cannot communicate. They sit in the darkness in silence. Alma refuses to accept that he is probably dead. Boyd cannot talk to her about it. Their neighbours learn quickly not to raise the subject.

Purdy uses tears as a powerful metaphor for communication in the novel. Throughout, in conversations with the stoic Alma, characters are reduced to tears. Her friend Faye’s tears fall ‘ostentatiously to her cheeks and lips’ while Anna ‘dry-eyed’, looks away. Professor Mannheim weeps in ‘short almost animal-like sobs’. When news finally arrives of Cliff’s death, we are told:

As if to make up for Alma, who would not cry, the short controlled weeping of Mrs. Van Tassel broke the silence which had come after Alma’s speech, and then came the sudden broken sobs of Faye, and the quiet tears of Clara Himbaugh.

It would be easy to feel no sympathy for such a character, but she is deftly handled by Purdy. She understands her weaknesses:

Since Alma had retired from teaching and no longer spent most of her day with children, she had become increasingly dissatisfied with her understanding and knowledge of adult problems and lives. She did not understand, she supposed, as she had heard her mother say many years before, “the main things about life”, and she had come to attribute this to her being an old-maid schoolteacher.

She imagines a horrible conversation with her friend Mrs Barrington, in which she attributes to the older woman a cruel opinion about herself. From this, a level of self-loathing is revealed. We can only feel sympathy later, when Faye’s mother, troubled by Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, tells the unvarnished truth about Alma, who has ‘made a mess’ of her life, and her brother’s too, and her nephew’s who got himself killed in order to escape. It may have been the truth, but it is a painful truth. And so Almas is a woman whose frosty exterior becomes increasingly fragile. ‘You have so much composure, Alma,’ she is told. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘I’m afraid to let go is all.’

Thus, when Alma finally cracks, while relaying to her brother the truth about Cliff, it is heartbreaking:

“There was nothing of our Cliff left.”

Violent sobs, long suppressed, of almost inhuman grief broke from her breast, then quickly subsided into the stunned silence of accustomed pain and, as she had so often remarked in herself, old age.

In this way, Alma slowly comes to understand about herself and about her pain. She learns to communicate it. She becomes human, joins the band of humanity who manage their emotions as best they can by expressing them. Her final salvation comes, near the end, in a moving scene with her old friend, Mrs Barrington, who is confiding in her some long-held and painful secrets of her own. ‘Alma wept now, silently, not for the nephew and herself this time, but for someone else.’

And in so doing she become alives. The truth she has uncovered about Cliff’s homosexuality no longer matters. Nor, in a sense, does his death. What matters is that he lived and that he loved her, and that she loved him.


Rainer said...

I thought you'd be interested in our special issue devoted to James Purdy:

Please spread the word if you're so inclined. The onset perhaps of the 21st century Purdy renaissance.

Tom Conoboy said...

Rainer, thanks very much for the link. That's a terrific issue. I'll put a post on the blog specifically about it, too, and hope it brings you some more readers.

I'm tied up with my PhD dissertation for the next couple of years, but after that I aim to make a full study of Purdy. I think he's a neglected genius.

thanks again