Narrow Rooms by James Purdy
Reviewed by fiction editor Anthony Vacca
You can find this, and other reviews by Anthony, on his goodread’s page.
Narrow Rooms is a rural melodrama that approaches its theme of gay love with the same heightened grotesqueness that Flannery O’Connor brings to her subject of religious madness. It doesn’t work. Purdy puts his four protagonists—a jailbird with masochistic leanings; a pothead who prefers to play paralytic; a beautiful rustic whose defining quality seems to be that he’s tragic; and the “son of the renderer”, aka “the scissors-grinder”, an unwashed sadist with a seemingly messianic sway over the lusts of the others—through the emotional wringer, situating their tender, but often cruel, passions at the center of a garbled narrative. Much like Barry Hannah, Purdy eschews sound editing for a messy prose style that favors maintaining a constant sense of hysteria over well-rounded prose. The novel wishes to shock the reader with its blunt approach to carnality between men, but forty years later the luridness feels outdated and removed from actual human interaction. A forced enema, mutual fellatio, and a rape at the foot of a tombstone are all related with the same measure of disgust, an authorial tone that projects a misplaced high-seriousness which undercuts the novel from working even as a black comedy. And repetitive, unnatural dialogue littered with awkward profanity doesn’t help matters. But what is the reader supposed to make of all this confused desire and bloodshed? Maybe the county doctor is right when he bemoans that the times are catching up with us all, regardless of the collateral damage. Or maybe the despondent brother is right when he realizes that things would have been better if he had only been willing to listen and accept others sooner. In any case, the want of getting laid shouldn’t lead to a crucifixion.