Children Is All, (1963)

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 Author: Purdy, James.
 Domain: Literature, Theatre. Genre: Story Collection, Play Collection. Status: Major. Country: USA, North America.
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This collection includes ten short stories and two plays. For the most part, these works focus on very ordinary characters confronting emotional crises or unexpected revelations. The psychological resources that they can bring to the situations they face are, however, so limited that they can respond only eccentrically or obliquely. In tone, the stories range from the unsettling to the absurdly pathetic to the lightly comic.

“Daddy Wolf” is a variation on Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Daddy Wolf is a radio version of the advice columnist, but, instead of giving us the story from the point of view of the person giving the advice, Purdy presents his story from the point of view of the person seeking it. The main character's wife had previously consulted with Daddy Wolf because her wish to prostitute herself had created major problems in their marriage. Like Miss Lonelyhearts, Daddy Wolf had fallen back on the cliché that she should give up her life of sin and return to church. Now she has taken their child and deserted the main character, leaving him alone and emotionally unhinged in their rat-infested apartment. Instead of calling Daddy Wolf, the main character has unburdened himself over the telephone to a complete stranger whose number he has randomly dialed. Now he is standing outside of the phone booth, haranguing the next person to use the phone about his need to reconnect with that stranger.

“Home by Dark” focuses on an old man who has taken custody of his orphaned grandson. Composed almost entirely of dialogue between the two characters, the story explores the subtle tensions between the boy's inquisitive precocity and the old man's guarded hopefulness. The old man insists that every individual needs to believe in something that gives meaning to his or her life. But the boy wonders repeatedly why the old man is reluctant to go back “home” to the South, just as the birds travel south and back north with the cycle of the seasons. The birds become a symbol of the options that the characters no longer have because of the old man's age and the family's unspecified but clearly tragic history.

In “About Jessie Mae”, two women gossip about the untidiness of the title character in such a way that it becomes clear that their own tidy lives are characterized by a sort of sanitized sterility.

“The Lesson” is a social satire with a neurotic edge. When a swimming instructor at a private club gets into a simple argument with the owner's daughter, he realizes too slowly that her obstinacy is charged with repressed emotions that can, in the moment, overwhelm him as well.

“Encore” is a variation on the relationship between mother and son in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In asking her son about his life at college, the mother in Purdy's story cannot restrain herself from being critical about his inability to find a wide circle of friends who would be a credit to him. When he finally loses patience with her and insinuates that her overbearing personality has compromised his ability to be such a “success”, she attempts to retreat from the whole subject.

In “Night and Day”, a young woman and her child have been abandoned by her husband. Because her father-in-law has generously continued to provide for her and his grandchild, she has developed enough affection for him to become sexually involved with him. But when he offers to marry her, she realizes that she will, in effect, be trading much of her own dreams for a certain kind of domestic security. In the end, she decides that confronting an undefined future is preferable to facing a life of confining predictability.

“Mrs. Benson” is a subtle story in the Jamesian manner. The title character visits her daughter, and they begin to speculate about a woman with whom they have both been acquainted. Mrs. Benson reveals that she and the woman had once been intimates but had had a falling out. But she seems to refuse to acknowledge the indications that her daughter and the woman have subsequently become quite close.

In “Sermon”, God himself preaches to the faithful. At the heart of his dramatic monologue is the message that despite all of the sinfulness in the world, he has “no message” that will redeem them.

“Everything under the Sun” explores the tensions between a young man named Jesse and his younger roommate, a fifteen-year-old named Cade. Jesse is diligent, thrifty, and spiritually upright – everything that Cade is not. But when Jesse had been in the army, Cade's brother had saved his life, and so Jesse feels that he is paying back a debt by looking after Cade. Nevertheless, on the day on which the main action of the story occurs, Jesse has finally had enough of Cade's shiftlessness, slaps him across the face, and tells him to leave. Almost immediately after Cade has packed his few belongings and left, Jesse realizes how much he has come to depend emotionally on Cade and finds himself in the ironic position of having to bribe him into returning.

“Goodnight, Sweetheart” is a comic variation on the Lady Godiva tale. Stripped of her clothing by the brother of a girl she has reprimanded, a stern schoolteacher is forced to walk home stark naked. Along the way, she finds a haven in the home of a former student, who is now a music teacher. At first he helps her most chivalrously, worrying over the degree to which she has been assaulted. In the process of her reassuring him that she has not been raped, a sort of role-reversal occurs, with her soothing him as much and then more than he is comforting her. By the end of the evening, she is in his bed and, much to her surprise, has become his lover.

In “Children Is All”, a woman waits for her son to arrive. He is being released from prison, and she is worried that he will not come home or that he will be very angry with her if he does come home because she has never visited him in prison. She attempts to explain herself to a young woman who is one of her neighbors and who seems compassionate in her willingness to listen. The mother eventually learns, however, that this young woman has been visiting her son in prison and has developed a relationship with him that is more intimate than her own with him. When the son finally does arrive home, he has been wounded, and his mother regards him as if he were a stranger.

Lastly, “Cracks” is a brief absurdist play in which an old woman converses with God, here referred to as the Figure, about the end of the world. She describes how she has seen it in a dream, and he tells her that it has actually occurred. But, in the end, their conversation convinces him to restore the world and reassign the apocalypse to a later date.

“Daddy Wolf” is examined in Shirley W. Burns' “The Emergency in Purdy's 'Daddy Wolf'” [Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature 20 (1968): 94-98, 103]. The play “Children Is All” is commented on in several of the essays in a special issue of the James White Review devoted to Purdy's plays [17 (Winter 2000)].

 

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