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James Purdy: Malcolm

Purdy’s best-known novel and one of the few still in print is a fascinating story of a young man – Malcolm – not least because Purdy has left it deliberately ambiguous, allowing for various possible interpretations. The outset of the story sees the fifteen-year old Malcolm sitting on a bench outside a sumptuous hotel, waiting for his father, who seems to have abandoned him. Malcolm, an ingenuous boy with little experience of the world, has no idea what to do. I suppose if somebody would tell me what to do, I would do it, he says. Enter Mr. Cox, an important person in the city and an astrologer who urges Malcolm to give himself up to things and gives him a list of people he should contact. Interestingly enough he starts with an undertaker and ends with a brothel. But none of these people – from the richest man in the world, Girard Girard, and his rapacious wife, who has a taste for teenage boys to the ethereal dancer, Cora Naldi – can help him and he ends up with the only way out for a boy in his situation, married – to the sexually demanding Melba who fucks him to death. Just as Cora Naldi seems to have no form, so there are doubts about Malcolm. The undertakers insist that there is no corpse after his death. Of course, part of this is that standard 20th century theme, the search for identity, which Malcolm is looking for but never finds, hence his own non-existence. It is a very fine book and deserves to be better-known.

Publishing history

First published 1959 by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy