I generally don't much care for Gore Vidal, either the man (or at least his public persona) or his work, but all praises to him for his essay on James Purdy in this week's New York Times Book Review.
''Gay'' literature, particularly by writers still alive, is a large cemetery where unalike writers, except for their supposed sexual desires, are thrown together in a lot well off the beaten track of family values. James Purdy, who should one day be placed alongside William Faulkner in the somber Gothic corner of the cemetery of American literature, instead is being routed to lie alongside non-relatives.
It is interesting that in a time of renewed debate over sexual matters (disguised clumsily as ''moral values'') James Purdy is re-emerging from the shadows. The first shadow fell upon him with his first novel, ''63: Dream Palace'' (1956), described by the publisher as ''dealing with obsessive love, homosexuality and urban alienation,'' and ending ''with fratricide. . . . Purdy writes about men who are unable to express their love for other men because homosexuality is unthinkable to them.'' Actually, as Purdy demonstrates, it is quite thinkable to everyone else. He has gone his lonely way; sometimes darkly comic, other times tragic as he faces down the ''kindly ones'' in his path, the Greeks' euphemism for the Furies that forever dog mankind.
We can only hope that Purdy is "re-emerging from the shadows." He is the very defininition of "unjustly neglected writer," and Vidal's extended discussion of Eustace Chisholm and the Works perhaps suggesst why he's neglected, at any rate. It's a creepy but brutally honest (and compulsively readable) novel that many readers no doubt find disturbing. (The scenes depicting Daniel Haws's excruciation by Captain Stadger are as unsettling as anything you'll ever read.) Most of Purdy's books are "disturbing," but in the very best way: they shake you out of your complacency and make you think--about the kinds of lives your fellow human beings really live, about the damage we do to each other, about the ways in which American culture preys on human frailty. They also can only make you admire the skill with which Purdy manipulates the formal properties of fiction in order to accomodate his uncompromising subjects and his frequently unmoored characters.
In addition to Eustace Chisholm, these would be good introductions to Purdy's work: The Nephew (1960, in my opinion his best novel), Cabot Wright Begins (1964), In a Shallow Grave (1975), and Narrow Rooms (1978).