Cabot Wright Begins, James Purdy’s third novel, published in 1964, is very similar in tone to his first, Malcolm, a detached, ironic, somewhat distanced work in which the humour is mordant and the characters exist in a bubble of their own in a space akin to, but clearly different from our own world. In this way, Purdy manages to establish a critical reflection of our modern culture and mores. The result is highly entertaining and equally disturbing.
The first thing to note about Cabot Wright Begins is that its eponymous hero has recently been released from prison for raping 300 or more women. The second thing to note is that this is a comic novel. Such discordance between subject matter and delivery is typical of Purdy (and others, Vonnegut notably, or Barthelme) and it is used here to great effect. Bernie Gladhart, a naive used-car salesman is pressurised by his scheming wife to write a novelised account of Wright’s exploits; he decamps to Brooklyn in search of Wright and finds him by chance, living in the same hotel; he is followed to Brooklyn by family friend, Zoe Bickle, who takes over the writing of the memoir; relationships everywhere are strained. America is in crisis. This is the basis of the novel. Near its conclusion, Purdy includes a ‘review’ by Doyley Pepscout, the king of New York reviewers, of the fictionalised memoir produced by Bernie and Zoe:
I regret to say that this sordid, often obscure book, without visible motive or meaning, is dispiriting, disquieting, sordid, and utterly without reader-appeal.
It is easy to imagine a sardonic grin on Purdy’s face as he wrote these lines, contemplating the likelihood of a similar reaction to Cabot Wright Begins. Writing in 1984 of his early attempts to get published, he noted:
My stories were always returned with angry, peevish, indignant rejections from the New York slick magazines, and they earned, if possible, even more hostile comments from the little magazines. All editors were insistent that I would never be a published writer.
In Cabot Wright Begins, Purdy takes great delight in skewering such publishing types, a significant theme of the novel being the fatuity and greed and philistinism of the publishing industry which lies prostrate, as Purdy describes it, ‘before [its]true God, Mammon’. Publishing, for Purdy, is a craven business, subject to fads, oblivious of literary merit. In such an environment, one can readily understand how a novel like Cabot Wright Begins might be dismissed, but that would be the result of superficial reading. This is comedy at its sharpest and blackest. In terms of style it resides somewhere between the darkest fantasies of John Hawkes and the tendency to whimsy of Donald Barthelme. Take the best of each of those writers, the grotesquery of Hawkes and the satire of Barthelme, and you begin to get a measure of Cabot Wright Begins and, indeed, of Purdy’s work in general. In truth, you may have to go as far back as Sherwood Anderson to get a wholly comparable stylist. But Purdy, who died last year, remains a misunderstood and under-read writer. He describes his own writing style as:
both realistic and symbolic. The outer texture is realistic, but the actual story has a symbolic, almost mythic quality. The characters are being moved by forces, which they don’t understand.
This, he argues, presents difficulties for both publishers and critics. In a world that values certainty, linearity, a realist sense of ‘truth’, Purdy’s work offers only complexity and uncertainty. And this represents the difficulties attendant in approaching Cabot Wright Begins.
At the most basic level, readers may struggle to overcome the fact that Wright, a seemingly decent, ordinary man, a Yale graduate now successful in Wall Street, has raped 300 women, has subsequently served a seemingly short prison sentence and is now back in his home city of New York, living a quietly respectable life. Furthermore, these rapes are accompanied by Wright 'giggling'. And they are presented in a dreamlike fashion, with the women all but acquiescent, and with no sense of violence or of physical or mental damage. ‘There was never any evidence of struggle after he left. Many [victims] called the police, but more to share their experience than to register a complaint,’ we are told at one point. One character even reports that it changes her life for the better.
Readers unable to discard their literal approaches to fiction – and there are, alas, many of them – may balk at this but, of course, what we are dealing with here is allegory. What makes Purdy’s approach challenging, though, is, as he himself explained in the quote above, the way he melds reality and allegory in such a distinctive manner. The world inhabited by Cabot Wright is very like ours. We do not, as we might in Barthelme, for example, have Indians manning barricades made of grock or people buying entire cities on a whim or a giant balloon floating balefully over Manhattan. What we have are men and women much like ourselves, acting much like ourselves, except... except.... They seem real but they clearly are not. And it’s that discordance again, the unsettling way the reader is drawn down a seemingly familiar path only to emerge into a wholly alien landscape. And so readers can become challenged by the world that Purdy presents. One has to learn how to read him.
So, if one accepts the allegorical nature of Purdy’s fiction, what is Cabot Wright Begins about? Purdy himself puts it simply: it’s ‘about how awful America is.’ It is a direct attack on the rapacity of a consumer society that is turning on itself and eating itself alive. Genuine, personal human feelings and emotions become subservient to the twin gods of the market and popular (dumb) taste. In such stultified worlds, where nothing is original and everything is manufactured, true, natural existence becomes impossible. Thus, Cabot Wright effectively becomes an automaton, beholden to his sexual impulses, permanently priapic, constantly over-stimulated, unable to operate outside the framework imposed on him by society. Afterwards, he cannot even remember the facts of his own life until he is reminded of them. His ‘cure’, which permits his release from prison, leaves him so enervated and unfeeling that even those base, manufactured impulses that originally prompted his criminality have been neutralised. He is nothing. He is a husk. He can no longer even giggle, far less express any emotion.
In this, Cabot is symbolic of America itself. In the sermons of Cabot's boss, Mr Warburton, Purdy indulges in some excoriating analysis of contemporary America. It is a ‘shambles of scrofulous obscenity and barking half-breeds’, a nation passing ‘as quickly as possible into the cosmic scrap-hole of non-existence.’ Cabot, and all of the characters, in their ways, represent that national descent into self-indulgent decay. Bernie is ‘living at the end of a civilization’, while Gilda Warburton has read that ‘America was coming to an end.’ Thus, we have a nation in decline, symbolised by characters who are, themselves, gravely affected by that decline. They lack empathy, any ability to relate in what might be considered a normal way.
Because of this, Purdy’s characters lack the ability to extrapolate from action and turn it into emotion. Therefore, they consistently act in highly dramatic ways. Bernie is sent by his wife, Carrie, to Brooklyn to write an account of Wright’s life more or less on a whim. Carrie immediately takes a black lover whom she ‘marries’ in a mock ceremony, while late in the novel Bernie also finds solace with a Congolese man, and Gilda Warburton becomes ‘intimate’ with the black butler (Purdy’s use of black characters is worthy of a dissertation in its own right). And, of course, we have the 300 rapes. These episodes are related in flat, undemonstrative language, as though they are entirely natural, and yet the characters seem not to develop in any way from their actions. On the contrary, Purdy completely eschews traditional character development.
Bernie’s attempt to write his fictionalised account of Cabot’s life, too, becomes enmeshed in consumerist excess. He is taken on, at the prompting of Zoe Bickle, by the pre-eminent literary agent in New York, Princeton Keith, and is assured his work will become a bestseller. It fits with the zeitgeist, he is told. It will be massive. By the time the work is complete, however, stories of rape have fallen out of favour and the book is dropped. ‘It’s the age of the black faggot and fellatio,’ Bernie is told. Rape is old hat. (And any similarities here to, say, this year’s vogue for misery memoirs or celebrity ‘auto’biographies are entirely prescient on Purdy’s part. What excess is currently in vogue? And what will be next? One has to imagine that Patrick Bateman, Harvard graduate and rising star of Wall Street, and coruscating dissector of 1980s culture, would have admired the assault on 1960s culture in Cabot Wright Begins.)
And just as we saw in American Psycho, such societies are also prey to prejudice and outrageous – often unconscious – falsification of events in order to fit a pre-ordained map of ‘rightness’. Thus, while Cabot, a white man, is embarked on his raping spree he is variously described by his victims as:
a Black Muslim, a Puerto Rican degenerate, a longshoreman amuck on canned heat, an Atlantic Avenue dope addict, an escapee from numerous penitentiaries, and a noted Jewish night-club comic.
A cloak of prejudice is drawn over daily life. A good Yale man cannot be suspect. A black or a Muslim or a criminal or Jew undoubtedly must. So it is in the world of the bland, where the lowest common denominator dictates beliefs and interests and motivations.
So, altogether, we see the characters assailed by a blend of bloated sex, racism and greed. And such is the homogeneity of modern life, Purdy warns, that all individual instinct and reason is ceasing to have meaning. At the end of this novel, Cabot writes to Bernie in a passage which finally transcends the layers of irony and lands a punch on the reader, asking plaintively, “Do You think there’s a Chance for Me if I ever Find out who I is?”
This takes us to the root of the novel. It is truly existential, in Camus’s sense of life as being absurd. The end of the novel arrives, remember, when Cabot Wright Begins. And what is it that he begins? To laugh. It is even spelled out for us: ‘First Ha then Ho, then Ha Ha HAR, HAAAAA!’ The whole shooting match, then, is simply absurd. And so all we have to do is make the most of it. But how? The novel ends with a beginning, a promise of hope, as the newly laughing Cabot Wright sets off to discover Me.
It’s a lesson worth learning.