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James Purdy: The Nephew

The hero of this novel – Cliff Mason – does not actually appear in the novel, having died (in the Korean War) before the book starts. His parents had died when he was young and he had been brought up by Alma, his spinster aunt, and her brother, Boyd. Like Malcolm, in Purdy’s previous novel, Cliff is both insubstantial and exists only as a reflection of how others see him. The army says that there is nothing of his to ship home. The photos that his friend, Vernon, had of him are destroyed in a fire. His final letter home says little. In short, he is vague. Alma tries to write a posthumous memorial about him but she realises that she knows little about him, even though she brought him up. She turns to her neighbours for help and, though they offer their view of Cliff, she learns more about the neighbours than about Cliff. The only major fact she does learn about him is that he may have been gay, having associated with two men who had a reputation for being gay. But, at the end, Alma admits I never knew him… I only loved him. Part of the novel is clearly a satire of the sort of small town in which Purdy grew up – its petty secrets, its people clinging onto faded dreams and the slow slide into dismal old age and death. But much of it is the same theme of poor communication and how we are only what others see of us.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy