Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Render Unto


The kitchens, woods and barns of small towns can hold as many and as lurid secrets as a city can cloak on its avenues and in the tall apartment towers. In a small mountain town in West Virginia is the love quadrilateral of Sidney, Brian, Gareth and Roy the mastermind pulling the strings of everyone.

Roy is known as "the renderer," which sounds so ominous like a serial killer or a grotesque monster. It also brings to mind religion with the phrase, "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render unto God the things that are God's," from Matthew 22:21. However, even though there are overtones of religion in this book the rendering refers to the act of rendering fat to make soap. Roy was the son of a renderer from the wrong side of the tracks in this small town. Roy as defined by the judgements and prejudices of others in this town was never going to be good enough for them and especially for Sidney therefore he would always be known as the renderer as a mark against him.

Roy would certainly like to have Sidney rendered unto him and therein is the plot of Narrow Rooms. Growing up Roy developed an obsession with Sidney and he never let that fade into his early adult life when this book takes place. Sidney was the football star of this town, from the right side of the tracks and held a secret that Roy would use to his advantage when he could in the form of sexual trysts with Sidney in cornfields and the showers. Despite the secretive trysts Sidney never humanizes Roy and so he publicly rebukes him at the end of high school. This event so deeply scars Roy that he spends the rest of his life planning his revenge on Sidney. He cultivates a long range plan involving other young gay men in this town to enact his revenge on Sidney and render him unto Roy. To achieve this goal there will be murder, arguments about class, the ascension of Roy to wealth and power and sex in this ever spinning love quadrilateral between Roy, Sidney, Gareth and Brian. This story could have quickly turned into a raunchy romp in the hills, barns and roadsides of rural America but Purdy keeps it from veering too far off into campy territory and he deserves respect and admiration for that.


Since this is a story with secrets and gay characters Purdy offers important reflections on the closet. Purdy 's observations through the behavior of some in this small town that would rather leave the truth unspoken, look away and live in denial than face a truth that so badly wants to be told is very keen. It sometimes isn't that people who hold secrets about themselves want to hide them but instead those around them that would rather keep the truth hidden so it doesn't shatter the walls of safety that people use to protect themselves for fear of the truth. As a gay man I know all about closets but sometimes we are not the ones that build those closets but have them built for us by families and friends like the situation with Sidney's brother Vance or the character of Dr. Ulric. It is interesting that Purdy's gay characters exist in closets that are largely not of their own making. What are closets really? Narrow Rooms?

Without giving too much of the plot away the religious imagery and themes return in this book with the quasi crucifixion of a main character, the resurrection of another and the salvation others find. The ending of the book is some of the most humorous writing I have read. I can see why British director Derek Jarman wanted to make a movie about this book. The final scenes are humorously absurd and I would have loved to have seen them play out in a film and it is too bad that it did not happen.

The two criticisms that I have of Narrow Rooms are minor but they were enough to annoy me some but did not prevent me from relishing this book.

The book was published in 1978 but I cannot tell when the book is set as that is never firmly established and that annoys me. I know that some of the characters have cars and radios but technology is rarely mentioned in the book to help me situate in my mind when this story is taking place. Was it the 1950s or was it supposed to be the 1970s? It did not come across as being a contemporary book for the time period in which it was published. The world the characters inhabit made no references to technology or events that would define the era of 1970s. Life in rural America, even in the mountains of West Virginia, still had color television and modern conveniences that are never mentioned in the book which is disorienting. The book was so devoid of period references it was as if they were detached from all life outside this town. I would have liked to have had more clarity as to when this story was taking place.

The other criticism is the stiff dialogue at times between the characters. The manner is which these characters speak to each other often does not feel natural or spontaneous. Some of the characters are wealthy and old money so you can expect a bit of upper crust proper English but even some of the characters that do not have a pot to piss in speak like Victorians. As a person born in rural Georgia I know that folks in small town West Virginia don't speak that way even if they are putting on airs to impress people. Private conversations would especially not be as stilted as some of the dialogue in this book.

Some have compared Purdy's writing to that of Georgia author Flannery O'Connor but Narrow Rooms reminds me of another southern writer. I get whiffs of Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms from this book. There is one line in the book that stands out, "behind this story so far is another story, as behind the girders of an ancient bridge is the skeleton of a child which superstition says keeps the bridge standing." That haunting imagery says to me that life, society and civilization are held up by secrets and myths and that maybe everything we think we know is built on a faulty foundation where what remains hidden is unthinkably ugly.

This was my first time reading a book by James Purdy, like many or maybe most people I had never heard of this author. I recently read a profile on him in The Guardian newspaper's book section about how he and his work had fallen into obscurity despite the high praise other writer's had for him. Purdy who died in 2009 was an American writer that some would have labeled a gay writer for he openly wrote about gay characters unashamedly before that was acceptable, but he did not consider himself a gay writer. Many gay writers dislike being labeled "a gay writer" because it can limit one's ability to publish and inhibit creativity. That label can be a closet that one is forced into. Purdy became a fringe writer who wrote about characters and stories of people living on the margins of society where he ultimately lived himself.

I need to read more of his writing.