Born in 1923 and publishing since 1956, James Purdy has been much praised by other writers – including Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Gore Vidal – but has not had a wide readership at least since his story collection 63: Dream Palace (1956) and first novel, Malcolm (1959). His 1967 novel with a military setting, Eustace Chisholm And the Works, I found devastating, and I thought that his 1986 novel In the Hollow of His Hand was hilarious, while being disappointed by his “AIDS novel,” Garments the Living Wear (1989).
I picked up In a Shallow Grave (1976) as part of my ongoing examination of fiction set in the Vietnam war and/or among veterans of it. The other one that In a Shallow Grave most readily and most often brings to mind is Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story, but Heinemman’s novel is haunted by particular ghosts (dead American soldiers) from Vietnam. There are only two allusions to the particular war in which the narrator with the outlandish Southern name Garnet Montrose was disfigured (one to “Indo China,” the other to the South China Sea) and some readers have mistaken the war in which Garnet fought (for WWII; it could just as easily have been the Korean War).
The pain and humiliation of returning a monster is not specific to any war. The isolation of very visible stigma is not even specific to combat veterans. The book is not a representation of “The Vietnam Experience” of Americans who were sent there, but representation of attempting to live with some dignity when one’s appearance makes many people sick, and makes those who knew the man before and know that he was disfigured in combat uncomfortable.
In a Shallow Grave is not quite a ghost story, not quite a parable, but shows the obsessiveness and intractability of the human heart, like Eustace Chisholm and other Purdy fiction has. (I did not find reading it as horror-inducing as reading Eustace Chisholm was for me).
Garnet Montrose who incants as much as he narrates, returned from Vietnam with visible scars and pains of the body and the spirit. He takes up residence in the house on his grandfather’s 40 acres. (There is never any mention of his parents, who are presumably dead.
Garnet advertises for someone to read to him and to massage his feet. A local black named Quintus Pearch does the reading, but returns each night to his dying mother. A vagrant named Daventry, who says that he killed two men back in Utah undertakes carrying letters from Garnet to the Widow Rance. (This is how she is referred to through most of the novel. Garnet was in love with her before he went to Vietnam. She married two Rance brothers, both of whom were killed in Vietnam). She agrees to accept letters from Garnet, as long as he promises not to lurk about trying to catch sight of her
Daventry feels emptier than death,. but comes to love Garnet (in a way more paternal than carnal), and Garnet is unsure to what extent he is Garnet’s surrogate, what extent his betrayer with the widow… A hurricane and a goblet of blood provide eeriness supplementing the sexual dynamics of the handsome messenger between two grief-stricken individuals with unresolved feelings.
Garnet’s old-fashioned diction comes from his grandfather’s books that Quintus reads him. “You are in the land of the living, while all your buddies are gone” is a bit ornate, but with in the bounds of plausibility coming from a Southern country doctor of the 1970s. I really cannot imagine anyone saying what Garnet does in reply: “My buddies are at least all safely dead, while I have been allowed to live, but with the appearance of one from the under-kingdom.” It sounds stilted to me, but may sound poetic to others.
I don’t think that In a Shallow Grave is a great book, but it is well-crafted with a symmetry that I admire, and characters haunted by their different pasts that seem plausible as well as being poignant. Quintus, in particular, provides some surprises.
Purdy grew up in northern Ohio (Fremont), went to the University of Chicago, and has been long resident in Brooklyn. Although he is not Southerner, In a Shallow Grave is Southern Gothic (closer to the fiction of Harlan Greene than that of Flannery O’Connor).