Friday, March 13, 2009

Goodbye, James Purdy

James Purdy is dead.

The last time I spoke to him was about three years ago. I didn't recognize his voice. "Vicky!" he said and when I sounded confused, he said, "It's James!" His voice was raspier than when I had been visiting him every Sunday two years previously. He said he had fallen down the steep winding steps of his Brooklyn Heights townhouse but reassured me he was fine. I promised to visit, but I never did.

For those of you who don't know who he is, go to Abe Books right now and buy yourself a copy of IN A SHALLOW GRAVE or EUSTACE CHISHOLM AND THE WORKS. He's the only writer I've ever read that has made me catch my breath with the sheer beauty of his language, the dead-on emotionality of a perfectly-placed turn-of-phrase. He was audacious too, writing scenarios that few would dare approach - disgusting moments of disembowelment and crucifixion in his hands became tragic expressions of twisted desire - the homoerotic longing in my favorite books are exemplars of an unattainably perfect love.

From the Estate of Robert Giard, James as I remember him
with his prints of 19th century pugilists and photo of Dame Edith Sitwell.

I learned of him through John Uecker, whom I happened to sit next to at Theater for the New City's Thanksgiving dinner at Arturo's in 1988. We instantly became good friends and my first evening visiting his apartment, he disappeared into the bathroom for (I swear) at least an entire hour. Left to my own devices, I went through his bookshelf and picked up a copy of IN A SHALLOW GRAVE. John had mentioned James a few times to me and my curiosity was piqued. I finished the book in one sitting, gasping through the middle and crying through the end of it, probably making sounds like a dying cat. I'm glad John was in the bathroom.

When I got back from a trip to Italy in 1989, John was about to direct SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS, an evening of two short plays by James and I fell right into producing, something that felt weirdly natural to me, though I was all of 17 years old. Natural or not, I wouldn't have done it if one of the plays, SOUVENIRS, wasn't astoundingly beautiful - one of the most lyrical plays I have ever read. The production was an incredible experience with Laurence Fishburne (then called "Larry") and Sheila Dabney. Yes, Laurence was great but Sheila was incandescent. Michael Feingold said in the Village Voice review, "Dabney can make the single word why sound like a complete requiem mass and make the cross from couch to easy chair look like the end of the world. The others only handle the language, she lives it."

Sheila Dabney & Laurence Fishburne in SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS, 1989

I think I saw the play six or seven times and it never failed that after the play was over and the lights came on, all the women in the audience of one accord let out a huge sigh and slumped over in their chairs. I am not exaggerating. The only woman who didn't react that way was Maria Irene Fornes, whom I happened to sit next to one night. She frowned and crossed her arms, warding off James' heightened Romanticism, I suppose. A few years ago, when I mentioned James Purdy to a passing acquaintance, he said that he's hung onto the program for SUN OF THE SLEEPLESS all these years - it was the most astonishing play he'd ever seen.

James Purdy, Jane Smith & Michael St. Claire
at the opening night party for 'TIL THE EAGLE HOLLERS

I produced two other James Purdy shorts ('TIL THE EAGLE HOLLERS) and then two full-length plays THE RIVALRY OF DOLLS and FOMENT. James was getting older by this time and coming out less, so I ended up visiting him more. I had a different take than his other visitors. Believing that a writer needs inspiration, I would bring over my son, who was then a toddler, and a book or an object that I thought would interest or inspire him. John worried that I was wearing him out and would occasionally give me an earful, but I was undaunted. I once brought a blind baby over on a visit and I spent a few weeks reading to him A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Howard Zinn. Somewhere among James' things is probably a ouija board that I bought - James refused to have anything to do with it, but I played with my son (then about 6) and we all got a little spooked by the antics of that ouija pointer-thing (particularly when it kept spelling AMOS AMOS AMOS). James stuck it under his typing table and we never touched it again.

Every Sunday for about two years, I would go out to his apartment in Brooklyn Heights, bringing him a healthy lunch that I would buy in a deli on Montague Street. For an 80 year old guy, he was very spry and would hop down the three flights, open the door and kiss me hello. I would follow his skinny heels up the steep winding steps, put lunch on a plate, sit and talk. He would have an entire pie waiting for dessert. I kept telling him it was unnecessary, but there it was every time - cherry or peach or pumpkin - and we'd eat three pieces and then he urge me to take it home. My son loved having pie at home all the time, of course. When James called one day to tell me not to come, I wondered if it was the pie - was buying a pie too much of a financial burden? Or maybe it was because I really was wearing him out? And then I had a falling out with John and never ended up visiting again.

It's sad to me that he never found the appreciation he deserved as a writer. Like all his friends, I worried about how he ate and paid his rent. James was always diffident, waving off his lack of popular success - calling the book industry and the "establishment book reviewing media" both "sister whores" - but I always felt that it must rankle. A compilation of his plays is coming out soon published by Ivan Dee - I'm not sure what's in it, but I hope to see FOMENT and ENDURING ZEAL. (Just think of that title - enduring zeal - isn't that what we all want?) There is no writer with a more unique voice than James Purdy, no one who wrote more truly from the heart and therefore more shockingly and disturbingly. James knew something about love and beauty most of us spend our whole lives trying to grasp. He told me once that when a student of his asked how he could be a better writer, he answered, "That's easy! Write what no one wants to hear."

James took his own advice and has left us an incomparable body of work that will probably be revisited now that the irascible thorny visionary himself is gone. Thank you and goodbye James. In my dreams, I'll see you on Sunday and share a pie we never could finish.