Narrow Rooms by James Purdy
I just finished reading Narrow Rooms by James Purdy. My friend, the perfumer Ralf Schweiger gave me the book, after noticing and admiring his shelf full of Purdy books. Nice editions of Eustace Chisholm, which I read years ago, In A Shallow Grave and others. He had two copies. I think he gave me the nicer one. Thanks Ralf. It is dark. You often hear that. Or I love dark stories, or his poems are really dark, or she has a dark vision. One man's dark is another man's Disney. Though Uncle Walt & Co. turned out to be darkness incarnate. You won't hear me say James Purdy is a dark writer. He wrote what he wanted to write. I'm sure it felt normal, not dark, not light, to him. I love Narrow Rooms. It is a love story about power and control, about ancient insults and high school Adonises. The story, the characters, remind me of George Sand, Poe, Du Maupassant; super charged Gothic love with plenty of hate. I love modern writers who remind me of the towering 19th century novelists. It has been said that Purdy's fiction reads as fable. I don't agree. I think he has his finger on the pulse of the American Male. Violence, love, and the body, are the paramount interconnected obsessions of almost every boy and man I've ever met. Reading the book, I remembered the great high school athletes who populated my high school and my psyche. The football gods and wrestling warriors. Steve Leslie was one of the greatest of these gods. I loved Steve. We were both on the wrestling team. Steve was intense in every way. Very smart, handsome with black hair and blue eyes, not much taller than me, but really strong. He had a sense of honor, a sense of humor and was very tough. He took things seriously, for reasons known only to the cosmos at that time. He seemed to like me, would talk to me, but I was afraid of him. Plus he was two years older than me. I looked up to him. Built for football, he would then, as we all would, lose weight for wrestling. He wrestled 134. I wrestled 107. We were always hungry. Though I was afraid of him, I was still a wise guy. One day in the locker room after a long hot wrestling practice, I kept saying "so" to every thing he said. Over and over. No matter what he said, I'd respond with a well placed "so." Finally, he couldn't take it. He grabbed me with both hands and threw me up against the lockers. And repeatedly threw me against them. Then got real close to my face, stared right into me and let go. I was stunned. He walked back over to his locker and didn't say a word. Of course, I didn't speak either. But boy did I shake and cry. I don't remember what possessed me to push him over the limit. As a kid, all of my energy went into being a wise kid. The bigger, the badder the target the more I enjoyed it. A few days later, Steve approached me the cafeteria and said hello. I gave him a meek hi back. I realized he felt bad. I didn't think he needed to feel bad. I was a wise guy and a real annoying jerk. And got what I wanted. During wrestling practices in the weeks that followed Steve would work out with me. He encouraged me to give wrestling my all. I loved wrestling, but didn't have the mental fortitude and psychic power one needs to be a great wrestler. Everything and everybody was a joke. One day, he told me that he had been accepted to Colgate University. That he was going to wrestle for them and that he was going to red-shirt a year. So I could follow him there . I was blown away. I couldn't handle this kind of tough love attention. I didn't know who I was or what I wanted to do. But this was all too serious and focused for me. Steve did wrestle for Colgate. I didn't. I never saw Steve again. Around 1987 or 88, I read about his death in the newspaper. He became a Marine Helicopter Pilot. Ordered by President Reagan to take out the Ayatollah's oil tankers, Steve was shot down and died over the Persian Gulf. I also wrote a song about all of this trying to use wrestling and flying imagery. I performed it a few times, never recorded it. I mentioned to Ralf that James Purdy lived a a studio apartment Brooklyn Heights until his death last year. Ralf knew and said he had always wanted to visit him there. Too late.