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In the Hollow of His Hand by James Purdy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $16.95; 254 pp.)

October 05, 1986|JOHN ESPEY | Espey is professor emeritus at UCLA.

In his new novel, James Purdy stands once again on his Midwestern home ground in the '20s, writing in his personal blend of surface realism, hilarious burlesque and flashes of divine magic to explore two of his obsessive themes: the blood forces of generations and the mutual needs of a father and a son.

The town of Yellow Brook, numbering about 5,000, lies some distance from Chicago. Its apparent calm is disturbed after the end of World War I when Decatur, a full-blooded Ojibwa Indian, returns to prowl about its environs, using his mustering-out pay to collect classic cars and empty old houses. In 1912, when Decatur was only 15, he had lied to the recruiting sergeant about his age and joined the Army. Now he circles the area, gradually closing in on the town's schoolhouse. Finally he enters it and asks his former teacher, Bess Lytle, which is Chad Coultas' seat in the classroom.

The Coultases are the town's leading family, though they are now nearly penniless; for Lewis Coultas has shown something like genius in squandering his mother-in-law's fortune and now rarely returns to visit his family. His wife, Eva, often in a laudanum haze, solaces herself with the company of her daughter, Melissa, and her black-haired son, Chad.

Decatur gets into the habit of waiting outside the school under an elm in one or another of his autos, and talks to Chad, inviting him to ride. Sometimes they simply chat and sometimes they go roaring off in one of Decatur's restored motor cars, such as his elegant Stutz. The genteel surface of Yellow Brook cracks as Chad's classmates begin to badger him about his one blue and one black eye, and finally shatters when Chad rides off with Decatur on a trip that crosses a state line, bringing charges of kidnaping against Decatur. Bess Lytle, the voice of town justice, remembers the rumor that there is Indian blood in Eva's family. When Lewis Coultas shows up and asserts himself by taking Chad off to Chicago, the narrative shifts into riotous farce, with Hogarthian scenes of naked lust, an aged Dickensian detective jotting down "particulars" as he keeps an eye on his new young wife and his husky chauffeur cuckolding him, and a lusty pair of jewel thieves, Minnie and Cora, who generously satisfy Lewis' financial and sexual needs.

Chad, escaping, moves under the protection of an unseen god, and heads for home, surviving one adventure after another as he makes his way through the gangster violence of Prohibition days, taking an occasional sip from a bottle of his mother's elixir. By the time he gets back to Yellow Brook, the town feels called upon to give him some kind of welcome, but the odd ceremony takes on its own life and dissolves as Chad, clear-eyed at last, sees Decatur making an entrance that leads to their joint exit.

That Purdy's view of American life--loveless, hypocritical, money-grubbing--has undergone little change over the years seems obvious. The particular attraction of "In the Hollow of His Hand" lies in the transformation of possible tragedy into comedy and the suggestion that something beyond either may--just may--be realized; for in scene after scene, hallucinatory or real, Purdy's characters either strip themselves or are stripped to their essential nakedness and truth.

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