James Purdy’s short stories are perfect little blows to the heart, disturbing and completely original examinations of lonely people on the fringes of society. In his introduction to this collection, John Waters suggests that readers consider the book “a ten-pound box of poison chocolates.” Here is how one story, “Goodnight, Sweetheart,” begins:
Pearl Miranda walked stark naked from her classroom in the George Washington School where she taught the eighth grade, down Locust Street, where she waited until some of the cars which had stopped for a red traffic light had driven on, then hurried as fast as her weight could allow her down Smith Avenue.
She waited under a catalpa tree, not yet in leaf, for some men to pass by on the other side of the street. It was fairly dark, but she could not be sure if they would see her.
Hurrying on down Smith Avenue then, she passed a little girl, who called out to her, though the child did not recognize her.
The house she at last turned into was that of Winston Cramer, who gave piano lessons to beginners, and whom she herself had taught in the eighth grade nearly twenty years before.
She rang the doorbell.
She could see Winston beyond the picture window sitting in an easy chair engaged in manicuring his nails.
She rang and rang, but he did not move from his sitting position.
A woman from across the street came out on the porch and stood there watching.
Pearl rapped now on the door, and called Winston’s name softly. Then she saw him get up. He looked angry.
“I discontinued the subscription,” she heard his cross high voice. “I don’t want the News — ” and he caught sight of her.
He stood looking at her, immobile behind the glass of the door. Then he opened the door cautiously.
“Let me in, for pity’s sake,” she answered him. “It’s all right to open the door.”
Excerpted from “The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy,” by James Purdy. Copyright © 2013 by John Uecker. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.