Reading, Writing and Writers

So far I have been pretty good at talking about tent cities and Barbie, but I haven’t talked yet about writing or writers. Let’s say I am working on that. I think that I’d like to talk about new books (I was once a book reviewer for a ‘great’ California newspaper which is now tottering and may be forced to close), about authors I like or am just getting to know, and I’d like to feature writers who have just died.

I’ve noticed that the older I have gotten the more I am going over to Wikipedia’s “Recent Deaths” page to find out which writer, artist, actor, musician or pop cultural icon has bit the dust. Seems kind of maudlin, I guess, or weird, like I’m seeking confirmation that I am still here. Some of these people, though, are like family to me, though I may have never have met them. I know, for instance, where I was when it was announced on the radio that Cannonball Adderley died (he was one of my stepfather’s favorite musicians, and I grew to like him, too, as a child), and even when Elvis Presley died (in a tofu factory in San Jose’s J-town, and although Elvis is not family, I acknowledge he was a figure of interest as well as derision among blacks). Some people, however, I don’t get to know about until they die, and then I’m pissed. I’ve lost out on the experience of their work, and knowing that they are still here.

I feel that way about the death this week of 94-year-old novelist James Purdy, whose novel Malcolm was adapted for an Edward Albee play and whose work, as the New York Times intoned:

[of] nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories and plays either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world, his distinctive blend of plain speech with ornate, florid locutions, and the hallucinatory quality of his often degraded scenes.

Sounds a bit like Flan O’Connor, but this is without reading his fiction. And I still like to read. You see, I learned to read at an early age, and so the world opened up to me as well. My mother took up Parents’ Magazine’s offer of an encyclopedia as well as a series of children’s classics in the early Sixties for me (cue Wikipedia), and so I had fantasy and reality. But I was still too young to read someone like Purdy, whose heyday was the Fifties and Sixties. And innocent.

The Literary Encyclopedia confirmed that “[Purdy] is an urban novelist whose characters often hail from rural backgrounds that continue to define them. He is obsessed with the exploitation and abuse of innocents, but he seems to regard innocence as the great American chimera. (In other words, it appears that Purdy regarded innocence as an excuse, that there are no real innocents, and that it is a load that Americans need to lose.) Although he has portrayed with great complexity the disjunctions within ordinary American families, he has also explored the midcentury subculture of homosexuality, as well as extremes of sexual experimentation and depravity.” Right up Albee’s alley. I’ve got mixed feelings about Edward Albee and his treatment of women. However, he did give the surrealist black playwright Adrienne Kennedy a hand up with Funnyhouse of a Negro Kennedy, by the way, is now 77.

In his artistic statement, taken piecemeal from interviews, Purdy said:

People have no respect, no empathy for other people; they have no sense of who other people are. There’s a kind of withering away of the human sensibility, and this leads to the collapse of just about everything.

My writing is concerned with the soul, with the unknown forces of the psyche. A British writer said I write under the skin, which I liked. In a spiritual sense, the real life of man is going on inside. It’s not what he says or does, it’s something else. The only way, I think, one can get in touch with that is in dreams, either sleeping or waking…not a trance like stage, but going beyond the conscious. I think maybe that distinguishes the two kinds of writing: there is the muse kind and the journalistic kind. I feel that the stories and subjects “come” to me, because when I try to seek them, they elude me. Consequently, I don’t write for anyone. I write for the soul. If you really tell yourself the truth, you’ve told everyone. This doesn’t come easily at all. It’s all a matter of psychic energy, of getting in touch with what you’re looking for.


I usually write about a person in crisis, because that’s the time we tell the truth. They say “in vino veritas”, but for me it’s the crisis when someone tells the truth. The people in my work discover the truth about themselves. They’re liberated from false illusions. In all my writing there is a final self-revelation which all of us try to avoid.

What’s particularly interested me in Purdy’s celebrated first novel, Malcolm is that when Albee adapted it, he excised all of the black characters in the play. This mirrored what occurred when Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Subterraneans was adapted for the screen. Kerouac wrote about his ill-fated relationship with a black woman named Alene Lee–Mardou Fox in the novel. The screenplay, however, turned the woman white, and I fault the motion picture code at the time as well as racism. By ridding the play of black characters, though, Albee destroyed its central feature, the fictionalized affair (if you can call it that) between Purdy and the singer Billie Holiday. In 1965, Albee may have been afraid to lay it all out as it was in the book, especially with the civil rights movement in full flight, and the transformation of Billie Holiday into an American icon who died from the effects of her heroin addiction only six years earlier. At any rate, the play was not a success when it was mounted. The black characters, evidently, is what the audience was looking for and didn’t find, like filmgoers finding out that, “it was wasn’t like the book!”

I read The Subterraneans while researching my own novel-in-progress about an interracial couple set in the early 1900s, Sugar Wars. Naturally, I wasn’t too pleased with the book’s outcome or with Kerouac when I was finished. It’s a little book that could be an afternoon’s quick read, but I was talking to myself at different junctures in the book so much that I was calling attention to myself from passersby. I had to push my way through to the end.

Nevertheless, it gave me a look into the facets of who this guy, Kerouac, this Beat hero, really was. It’s none too pretty, because Kerouac was that autobiographical, and he knew it wasn’t pretty, but he laid out that darkness there for people to see. No fantasy, just reality. That I can at least respect. That’s why I am going to make a note to read James Purdy’s Malcolm beyond hearsay and warning, and give the writer a chance.

~ by blksista on March 14, 2009.

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