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.
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.
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
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:
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."
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
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.
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)