Monday, August 8, 2011

James Purdy, Out With The Stars, 1992, Peter Owen Publishers

James Purdy is the ultimate modern American. His life and his writing are fascinating and wholly seeded, potted and bloomed in what was the bulk of America’s twentieth century. Born in 1914 in the tragically named Hicksville Ohio, he went on to do the regular things that white males of that time did; go to school, go to war, go to school again and then teach. Things shook up though as Purdy was not a regular bee and he became a part of the artistic, music, and cultural scene of Chicago and New York. Fortunately he also possessed a gift for writing and was able to transform his experiences and characters of his life into novels, short stories and plays. His first book, 63 Dream Palace is a stunner. It is an absolute must read if literature has any meaning to you, it will make you gag with its brilliance.

Now to focus on Purdy’s 1992 Out With The Stars (he was in his 70s for god’s sake!) which is perfectly Purdy but admittedly has a few loose strings. What is most fabulous about this book is that it is set in New York City in the late 1950s and it focuses on a few characters that are composers, photographers and their various lovers and binds. The novel begins with Val (Valentine) Sturgis, a gifted, quick to cry young composer who is from Kentucky and has been taken under the wing of Abner Blossom, the venerate highly acclaimed composer who is old but not age-ed. The story is based around Val having found an anonymously written libretto in a night club one goes to have sexual orgies, he accidently leaves this at Abner’s apartment in the Hotel Enrique, which is most probably Hotel Chelsea in its location and iron wrought balconied description. Abner, who was made famous by his early works on operas using African American actors and themes, did not think that he had any more masterpieces in him but after viewing the libretto he is propelled with inspiration to write a new opera, this one to be based on Cyril Vane.

Cyril Vane is a world famous photographer who photographs only the cultural elite and also Adonis’s. He has been at it for a long time and is known for his preference for males and also for men of color. His studio is in his home and is the private sanctuary for many photographic sessions as well as hedonistic forays. This studio is off limits to his wife, Olga Petrovna, a plumped up past star of the silent screen era. She is his “beard” as some would say, he is infamously bi-sexual but in a way that seems almost bygone in today’s comprehension of it. The element of grandiose homosexuality in this book is astounding in its overtness and also in its subtle matter-of-factness. Almost all of the leading male characters are gay but it is never outright stated or talked about as an issue. This is utterly refreshing in its non-discourse. The novel is not about being gay but about the characters and the tales to tell of each person.

This is Purdy’s forte, the characters, his ability to express their inner monologues and also the hints of their psychology through a twitch or a quiver. He also gives his characters fascinating names that propels them to the person he sculpts them to be. This is of course done by others, but he is truly a master of this game.

The story unfolds at first tightly; Val meets Cyril, meets Olga, and is guided by Abner throughout. He loses his old “roommate” and friend Hugh who came with him from his hometown and then meets a new lover, Luigi, in dramatic fashion in the pouring rain on a street corner. Then it gets a bit noodly. The book goes into detail about Luigi and his past and his love affair with the reclusive but famous actor Francis X. Beauregard who has a mansion in the dangerous, straw strewn streets of distant Williamsburg that is a secret palais of young boys and men that serve and have served Beauregard in his many years. This tale continues for many pages and is a bit dramatic; levitation, Jesus in burning bushes and Chinese acupuncture is involved. In the end Luigi commits suicide out of Val’s window after Francis X.’s death. It gets even loopier from here. The focus at the beginning was about Val and then it shifts to other characters in the book in spasmodic focus at times.

Although convoluted, the book doesn’t unravel completely since it holds itself tight with Purdy’s distinct pacing. This pacing is quick, precise, drenched with personality and has perfect word choice. Thankfully in the end there is the cumulative scene of the completion and presentation of Abner’s opera about Cyril Vane and Olga Petrovna, the Cock Crow, which uses all black singers and is a cultural coup d'etat. The premiere is in Brooklyn and has the Brooklyn Bridge in a stand still. Abner, Val and others walk the bridge to the theater and it is a booming success. The issues of color and sexual preference are the themes of the opera but through the lens of art and through the characters Abner dresses it in, the opera becomes transcendent of anything as complicated as the politics of those things. The real Olga has been plotting to stop the play and to stop Abner and causes a scene with a loaded pistol on stage but people take that as a part of the opera and they celebrate it even more.

The story in itself is a vehicle for Purdy’s life and art. The characters are all manifestations of Purdy in some way or another. He wears these characters as hats and in wearing them he pulls out recollections and memories past. The interchangeability of this is wonderful as it is schizophrenic. The world and the characters that Purdy unfolds in the novel are inspiring in their uniqueness and it seems a shame that characters like these are no longer around anymore. Purdy himself reflects on this loss by the age of Blossom and the deaths of, Vane and Beauregard. Their speakeasy, Parisian, silent screen times are all past and the New York in this novel is also of the past. There was a glory to those times that seems so distant yet it was not that long ago, not really. There is hope given to the continuation of this cultural promise and drama in Val, the character Purdy begins with. Val is like those that were of the 1920s, 30s and 40s and his eccentricities and proclivities will hold the flame of this time for at least a bit longer.

This novel is dear say not the best of Purdy but it is still a damn good morsel of a type of writing that reflects a time that seems sadly too far gone for resuscitation.