From the very beginning of his career in the mid-1950s, James Purdy has remained one of the most enigmatic figures of post-World War II American literature. Over the last 45 years he has regularly produced work across a variety of genres: nineteen novels, nine collections of short fiction (including, in several instances, works in other genres), nine collections of poetry, five published plays and six others that have been produced. His work has garnered him several literary prizes, including the Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for On Glory's Course (1984). Writers as diverse as Dame Edith Sitwell, John Cowper Powys, Dorothy Parker, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal, and Jerome Charyn have sung his praises. Three book-length critical studies of his work have been published and his work has been discussed at length in more than a dozen well-known critical surveys of contemporary American fiction and drama. Yet, as a recent, brief profile in Vanity Fair has emphasised, Purdy's work continues to be much more highly regarded in European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Italy, than in the United States. Among American critics, none of his subsequent works has struck a deeper chord than his first two full-length novels, Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1961). Although Purdy has had much too extended and substantive a career to be dismissed out of hand, he has not attracted enough sustained or pointed notice to escape being labelled “obscure”, and he has also not produced a singularly controversial novel or play that might have made him a cult figure.
Purdy's greatest achievement – and the greatest obstacle to his wider success – may be that his work has consistently defied classification. He 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. 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. Indeed, although Purdy's work includes some of the most garishly gruesome acts of savagery in contemporary fiction, it is the sense of the numbing degradation of daily life, the sense of the monstrous monotony in the endless combinations of damaged psyches and limited possibilities, that provides the most lingering impression of his work. It is not an exaggeration to say that no American writer has ever explored more thoroughly and more unsparingly the internal and external landscapes of isolation, loneliness, and diminishment. Stylistically, Purdy's prose blends the journalistic directness of naturalism with the eccentric verbosity, ornamentation, and distortions of surrealism. He has created a hybrid narrative language from the deceptively plain speech of middle America and the florid archaisms of early American spiritual admonition and political bombast. Often described as allegorical, Purdy's fictions lack the clear ideological frames of reference that make allegory possible; his view of American life is simply too idiosyncratic – too weird – to be broadly representative. On every level he has transformed the familiar features of contemporary American life into a fictional world that is just familiar enough to haunt the reader as much as it undermines his characters. A native of Ohio who spent much of his formative years in Chicago, Purdy has lived at various times in Europe and Latin America, but his home base has been a modest residence in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, his work seems to combine the perspectives of the insider who can't get out and the outsider who can't fit in.