Aubrey Organics 100% Natural Hair and Skin Care

  Organica Home
Aubrey News
The Arts
Book Reviews
Reference Desk
Aubrey Organics

Copyright © 1996—2004, Aubrey Organics®. All Rights Reserved.
Contact us for more information.
Site Credits.


Book Reviews   
Unsentimental Journey
By James Purdy; reviewed by Thomas Fillion

Originally published in 1959, James Purdy's Malcolm was instantly flagged by Dorothy Parker as "the most prodigiously funny book to streak across these heavy-hanging times." It came on the heels of his 63: Dream Palace, a novella published in 1956 which Purdy, a then-unknown writer, had sent on a whim to British critic and writer Dame Edith Sitwell. She was so impressed by the originality of 63: Dream Palace that she helped find a British publisher for the book and later pronounced Purdy to be "one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language."

Written in a style reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Malcolm exhibits the same timeless qualities as those classics—it could have been written last week, last year or three decades ago. Now, 36 years later, a British publisher has reissued book in a handsome edition with some interesting new twists.

First, Purdy has always been hard to classify as a writer—he doesn't write in any particular genre. On the book's copyright page, along with all the vital statistics, including the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data, the publisher attempts to help booksellers and libraries "categorize" Malcolm, if such a thing is possible: Category #1: Eccentrics and Eccentricities—United States—Fiction. Category #2: Gay youth—etc. Category #3: Young Men—etc. For the reader, these are signposts for what lies ahead, although much of the story lies in Category #1.

Another striking aspect of this edition is the cover. In the book Malcolm is described as a 15-year-old boy of unusually good looks, yet the cover depicts a bearded young "god" with blank or closed eyes, an illustration with a decided Greco-Roman flavor. Purdy has said Malcolm, a homeless youth, has no mentor and this is a story of destiny. The new book cover is meant to reflect that.

The story opens with Malcolm sitting on an ornamental bench "in front of one of the most palatial hotels in the world." Although he has a room in the hotel, he is waiting outside for his father to return. His father never does reappear. Malcolm is mostly unschooled, except for a familiarity with the French author, Verlaine, whose works his father had read continuously to him. A famous astrologer, Mr. Cox, a charter of lives and a tyrant, after passing the bench several days in a row is outraged that Malcolm is sitting there, staring blankly and doing nothing.

Here Purdy displays his great genius for character and description. He is comic and sardonic in his portrayal of the astrologer's outrage at Malcolm inhabiting his territory:

"Mr. Cox stared angrily, and the boy stared back, open-eyed and unimpressed. As Mr. Cox was at that period, in a sense, the city, the hotel, and, in his own mind, civilization, this stare on the part of so young a person could scarcely be brooked much longer."

Mr. Cox finally persuades Malcolm to leave the safety of the bench and give himself up to things. The astrologer lives in the world of names and addresses and that's how he plans to "help" Malcolm: giving him an address to visit each day. The first address takes Malcolm to a black undertaker, Estel Blanc, where he witnesses a floor show by a funeral parlor diva.

From there he is passed like a baton in a relay race among a group of "eccentric" characters, including a midget who paints and a billionaire, Girard Girard and his wife, Madame Girard. He is then handed over to a rival painter and her ex-burglar husband. All vie for control of the trophy, Malcolm. This is ripe terrain for Purdy, who mixes fanciful scenes with insightful, comic descriptions and dialogues. By chance, Malcolm slips away on the back of a motorcycle driven by a "contemporary" who introduces him to Melba, a famous jazz singer. Malcolm becomes her boy-toy. Along the way there is a visit to a tattoo parlor and a whorehouse, both a long way from the safety of the bench in front of the hotel.

Reading Purdy is like getting on an escalator. No matter where you're at, a step materializes out of some subterranean nether world and whisks you away. When you get off, the step melts away into the same region. Malcolm is an unusual book. Thirty-six years after its first publication, Purdy is once again shown to be an American Petronius with a little bit of Presbyterianism here and there.

To order this book, (24 hrs, 365 days) please call (800) 96-Book-1 (Ext. 5500)

Return to top