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James Purdy: Eustace Chisholm and the Works

Set in Chicago during the worst of the Depression, this book reminded me somewhat of Flannery O’Connor, with its characters who are not quite ordinary. Eustace himself writes epic poems that do not attract much of a readership, apart from his room-mate, Clayton Harms, renter of electric signs. But it is not the poems that are Eustace’s works of the title but the various people who are associated with him and whom he, in true Purdy fashion, tries to make in his own mould. Though Eustace is married – his wife has left him but returns later – this is the first of Purdy’s overtly homosexual novels and most of Eustace’s relationships have homosexual overtones. As a good Purdy hero, his father is disposed of early on, having killed himself when his business started to fail. His main friend, Daniel Hawes, also lost his father early – he was killed in a riot when Daniel was thirteen. While Eustace is a father figure to him, Daniel wants to become a father figure to Amos, the beautiful boy we find in much of Purdy’s fiction, not quite of this world and destined for an early death but not a tragic death, more of return to his world. Daniel, however, rejects his own homosexuality and cannot have a relationship with Amos. He joins the army and ends up being brutally abused by Captain Stadger. Like his namesake, he has entered the lion’s den.

That Daniel and Amos represent, for Eustace, two sides of the same coin – the physical or even the American (Daniel has the American flag tattooed on his arm) for Daniel and the platonic ideal for Amos – is clear. When they both die, as they must, Eustace has ended his work, whether it be his epic poems or his moulding of other people’s characters. Once again, we are left with a main character who is left – to do what? We do not know.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux