31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 5: “Goodnight, Sweetheart” by James Purdy

May 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy

Complete_Short_Stories_James_PurdyJames Purdy is a writer who constantly found himself shut out of the front ranks of the American canon. This was not for want of admirers. Among the literati who sang the author’s praises, Purdy could number as fans Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Gore Vidal. Reviewing the novel Cabot Wright Begins in 1964, Susan Sontag called Purdy “indisputably one of the half dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously.” Contemporary fans include filmmaker John Waters (who supplies an introduction to the Liveright edition of the Complete Short Stories), Jonathan Franzen, and Tao Lin.

Not everyone is so effusive, however. Waters points out that the critic Edmund White “claim[s] to be ‘allergic’ to Purdy’s work,” while Dwight Garner, reviewing the Complete Short Stories in The New York Times, suggests that Purdy “remains one of those American originals who is mostly more interesting to read about than to actually read.”

No doubt Purdy is controversial, as even a casual acquaintance with the stories should indicate. He is frequently disdainful of women, if not outright misogynistic. The story “About Jessie Mae” features two nattering biddies who are a caricature of small-town gossips, and “Lily’s Party” is a pornographic horror show about a woman who is passed back and forth between two sexually ravenous men. In “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name,” a husband viciously beats his wife after she admits wanting to revert to her maiden name. (The husband’s name, which “irritated her,” is Klein, adding at least an incipient note of anti-Semitism to the mix.)

There is no doubt that Purdy, who died in 2009 at the not unenviable age of 94, was a provocateur of the first order, which goes some way to explaining his appeal to people like Waters and Lin. He could also be an irredeemably cruel writer, which helps explain Franzen’s affinity. And he was possessed of a streak of vicious humour that is pure Dorothy Parker. But in terms of his tone and approach – part satire, part fabulist – his closest literary relative is arguably Nathanael West, whose depictions of a specifically American kind of malice and anomie feel right at home alongside Purdy’s own writing.

The story “Goodnight, Sweetheart” begins with an eighth-grade schoolteacher named Pearl Miranda fleeing her schoolhouse and taking refuge in the home of a local man named Winston Cramer. When she arrives on his porch, Miss Miranda is completely naked; she claims that when she was alone in the classroom after school, a man with a gun burst in and stole her clothes as “a trick” to avenge his younger sister, whom Miss Miranda had had expelled. Winston suspects that Miss Miranda has been raped, and tries to convince her to visit a doctor in the morning.

It is tempting to read the story in a straightforward manner, but as always with Purdy, such temptation should be resisted. A brief sketch of the story’s plot belies the elliptical nature of Purdy’s treatment; “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is ostensibly a work of naturalism, but its plain dialogue hints at hidden meaning beneath the surface. Miss Miranda claims she has taken refuge with Winston because she was compelled to: “I had to come here tonight,” she tells him. “You know that.” This snippet, so easily passed over in a cursory reading, is strongly suggestive of something beyond what we know of these characters directly. As is Winston’s dismissal of his neighbour, Bertha Wilson, witnessing the naked schoolteacher enter his home: “‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Winston said. ‘Nobody will think anything about us.'”

The italicized final word draws attention to itself, prompting questions in the reader’s mind: what is it about Miss Miranda and Winston – apart or in tandem – that might exempt them from suspicion in the eyes of their fellow townspeople? At almost sixty years of age, Miss Miranda is a spinster, and Winston lives alone in the house he shared with his mother until the older woman’s death. He does his own cooking, a fact that prompts an odd reaction from Miss Miranda: “‘I bet you’re a good cook, Winston. You were always a capable boy.’ Her voice lowered as she said the second sentence.” To what, exactly, does the reference to Winston being “a capable boy” refer, and what would prompt Miss Miranda to lower her voice at this moment? (When Winston responds, Purdy underlines that it is in an artificially loud tone.)

There is another reference to lowered voices between the two, at the story’s end. They are in bed together, Winston having tucked the woman in after she succumbs to violent paroxysms of shivering. “He had thought to go upstairs and sleep in the bedroom that had been his mother’s” we are told, “but he didn’t know whether he had the strength to get up there, and in the end he had crawled back under the covers next to Miss Miranda.” He speaks to the old woman twice, telling her goodnight. The second time he does so by uttering the story’s title phrase: “‘Good night, sweetheart,’ he said again, in a much lower voice.”

The repetition of the hushed voice here is notable, as is the term of endearment, though there is nothing overtly sexual about this particular moment. On one level, it could be read simply as one person attempting to comfort another, though the context and the nature of the experience Miss Miranda has undergone renders this reading problematic at best. As the two lie together in bed, we are told, “both muttered to themselves in the darkness as if they were separated by different rooms from one another.” This, too, is an echo of an earlier moment in the story, when Winston absents himself to the kitchen and Miss Miranda overhears him mumbling to himself. “She supposed all lonely people muttered to themselves, and it was one of the regrettable habits she could never break in herself.” Are these, then, merely two lonely people, one of whom has suffered a traumatic experience, or is there much more going on?

The story is largely suggestive of the latter. During their interaction, Miss Miranda – to whom Winston always refers with the honorific – reverses roles with her supposed comforter, holding his head when he becomes sick from what he initially blames on a virus, then later attributes to appendicitis. “The doctor will come and fix us both up,” Winston tells Miss Miranda late in the story, an assertion the reader cannot help but question.

The unease in the story resides in what is deliberately withheld. The true nature of the relationship between Miss Miranda and Winston is never revealed, and at the story’s penultimate moment Miss Miranda catches a glimpse of Winston’s deceased mother in a picture hanging on the bedroom wall; she appears “pretty much as Miss Miranda remembered her.” This remark is never explained or clarified, nor is the exact nature of what happened to the teacher made explicit. “Goodnight, Sweetheart” provides a snapshot of small-town America in which the home appears to be a haven or a refuge from the evil of the world at large, but it remains unclear exactly what truths the home itself conceals within its walls.

In her assessment of Purdy’s output, Sontag identifies a number of distinct modes in which the author can be seen to work: “There is Purdy the satirist and fantasist; Purdy the gentle naturalist of American, particularly small-town American, life; and Purdy the writer of vignettes or sketches, which give us a horrifying snapshot image of helpless people destroying each other.” The author of “Goodnight, Sweetheart” appears to hover somewhere between the latter two states; in its glancing, abstruse presentation, the story leaves it to the reader to determine how to interpret the discomfiting particulars. Like many of Purdy’s stories, “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is constructed like a trap, with the careless reader its unsuspecting victim.