Monday, October 3, 2011

In a Shallow Grave (1975) by James Purdy

I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Told in the first person by Garnet Montrose, a horribly disfigured Army veteran. Garnet describes himself as having been turned inside out; people cannot look at him without wretching.

Garnet returns to his Virginia home and lives alone in the house of his grandfather and great-grandfather. He seeks the aid of an assistant to nurse him, read to him and to carry letters to the Widow Rance, a childhood friend, with whom he is desperately in love.

Garnet winds up with two assistants. Quintus is a young, intelligent African American who reads to Garnet and Daventry who ministers to Garnet and with whom Garnet forms a Platonic relationship. This unpromising mix of characters results in a surprisingly engaging story in which Garnet is transformed.

In a Shallow Grave is allegory, call it Southern Allegory (as opposed to the misnomer, Southern Gothic). It follows in the tradition of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and even earlier antecedents.

Being allegory, even the characters must be viewed in that light. Garnet, having been turned inside out, by being in an explosion that killed his comrades, views himself as horribly disgusting to others. Perhaps he believes his inner self has been revealed. Quintus, from the Latin name to his habit of reading the obscure and archaic books that seem to litter the house, reads aloud to Garnet those passages the Garnet needs to hear and functions as sort of a Greek chorus. Daventry is a beautiful outlaw, but missing his front teeth.

There are many twists and turns, all with hidden meaning and what starts out one way has, by the end, turned out as quite another. This is a novel about the outsider, the dispossessed, and his journey of self discovery.

Purdy's prose is spare, unornamented and free of unnecessary digression. Gore Vidal has called him "an authentic American genius." He has been called the best 'unknown' American writer.

Shallow is a quick read, 140 small pages of not small print, but a long ponder. I find myself returning to it at odd moments. It is instantly recognizable as a great work of fiction.

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