Books we know
as old friends
by Roberto Friedman
Reprinted in new editions, several books by authors we loved in our youth came back into our reading focus. It was great to make their re-acquaintance.
The reissue of the great (mostly) underappreciated gay author James Purdy's 1964 novel Cabot Wright Begins (Liveright) reminded us of why we loved Purdy novels like Malcolm, The Nephew and Eustace Chisholm and the Works in the first place. Simply put, no one else writes quite like JP (1914-2009).
"Mrs. Bickle had arrived in New York during the big drought, the revival of the wig and white-lead lip makeup, fellatio as the favorite subject in bestselling fiction, the campaign by the Commissioner of Markets to put palm-readers, fortune-tellers. and purveyors of the occult out of business, and world sugar irregular."
This is pure Purdy, like the setting of so many small jewels, one by one, in a bracelet of a sentence. Despite the preciousness of the prose, and the soapiness of the plot, the story always barrels right along. Cabot Wright is a satire of the New York literary world, with trenchant portrayals of writers, editors, and publishers. It involves a rapist as a commodity. Out There very much got a chuckle out of it.
The paperback reissue comes on the heels of the first publication of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy (Liveright, in hardback), all 56 of them, including seven previously unpublished tales. In his introduction, filmmaker John Waters suggests, "Randomly select a perfectly perverted Purdy story and read it before you go to sleep, and savor the hilarious moral damage and beautiful decay that will certainly follow in your dreams."
It wasn't chosen at random, but we started dipping into the volume with a midcareer story, "Some of These Days," in which a young hustler, released from jail, looks for his beloved benefactor in every porno theater in New York. "And so there in my cell I had to confess what did I have for him if it was not love, and yet I had treated him meaner than anybody I had ever knowed in my life, and once come close to killing him." Violence, destitution, amnesia, sordid sex: to use Waters' metaphor, these are the bon bons in Purdy's chocolate box. If you read for natural settings, well-rounded characters or verisimilitude, go elsewhere. But if you love a writer who plays with words in impish fashion, Purdy could be for you.
Meanwhile, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has re-published three classic novels by the celebrated late gay author Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man, Down There on a Visit, and The Memorial. They're reissued in handsome little paperbacks newly redesigned by graphic artist Charlotte Strick.
A Single Man, published in 1964 and regarded as one of the first modern gay novels, follows gay middle-aged college professor George through a typical day in his Southern California life. You may remember the recent excellent film adaptation starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Matthew Goode, but the book is worth its own read. It's short and sweet. Here's George observing his young male college students:
"Most of these wore sneakers and garterless white wool socks, jeans in cold weather, and in warm weather shorts (the thigh-clinging Bermuda type – the more becoming short ones aren't considered quite decent.) If it is really warm, they'll roll up their sleeves and sometimes leave their shirts provocatively unbuttoned to show curly chest hair and a St. Christopher medal." Garterless, how shocking!
Down There on a Visit is generally considered Isherwood's most fully realized novel. It brings together four times and settings: Bremen, 1928; the Greek Islands, 1932; London, 1938; and California, 1940. They parallel four periods in the author's life, and profile four individuals who were influential to him. The prose is all Isherwoodian titillation.
"We passed a fountain – a sculptured group of Laocoon and his sons writhing in the grip of the snakes. In this sunshine you could almost envy them. For the snakes were vomiting cool water over the hot, naked bodies of the men, and their deadly wrestling match appeared lazy and sensual."
The Memorial, which we haven't yet read, is a portrait of an English family. FSG will be publishing two additional classic Isherwood novels, A Meeting by the River and The World in the Evening, in October 2013.