Gertrude of Stony Island Avenueby James Purdy
In England his novels are always bestsellers, yet for the last decade this American literary master has not been published in his own country. No longer! Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue displays the same plainspoken power that has dazzled Purdy's devoted audience for decades. The story of a woman's struggle to come to terms with a life seemingly emptied of meaning by her estranged daughter's death, it explores themes that Purdy has long made his own: the mysterious connections between creativity and self destruction; the human alchemy that binds us even as it forces us apart; the paradox of loss that leads ultimately to renewed life and love. Its portraits of two very different women -- a bereaved, bewildered mother and the artistic, passionate, doomed daughter she is still striving to understand -- are sketched in deceptively simple lines that finally, magically depict a complex world filled with characters observed in such utterly particular detail that they achieve a resonant universality that every reader will recognize.
The book is written in a ponderous prose sprinkled with cliches. -- Reba Leiding, James Madison University Library
Their daughter Gertrude, now some years dead, was an artist whose bohemian rebelliousness kept them both well at bay during her short life and now makes her absence all the more difficult to bear, especially for Carrie. 'Behind all this tame, insipid life we were leading on Stony Island Avenue, there was something after all mysterious, strange, and yes frightening.' And Carrie means to find out what it is. To begin with, she discovers that her husband, 'Daddy' as she calls him. is secretly compiling a massive and nonsensical record of his childhood and youth, entitled 'Index of Forgotten Items.' She leaves Daddy, moves in with a friend, and persuades Daddy's lawyer Cy Mellerick to show her her daughter's secret world. 'Around me I saw a terrible Chicago I had previously barely glanced at,' which in actual fact was a Chicago of passions: of jazz and painting and liquor and sex. 'A city of fearful energy and confusion, ceaseless change and sunless sky.
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Daddy is very peevish and irritable. He thinks I may be writing something about Gertrude. I, who seldom had the patience to write a postcard to anyone, and of course more trouble writing a letter. All I do is jot down little notes-recollections of Gertrude. Daddy complained once I sat up late scribbling. "Come to bed, Carrie, like a good wife and helpmeet."
Daddy is failing. Oh, is he ever. What will I do when he is gone? And the chilling thought came to me like someone whispering behind my armchair: You will write down everything you can remember, Carrie, about Gertrude, your daughter, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, Chicago..
We never got on, Gertrude and I. Yet I believe we loved one another. I often sit all day thinking of my own failings. Daddy knows this and it makes him even more irritable and bad-tempered. "You should take up your music again," he scolds.
He and I both sang once in the church choir, that is where we met, in fact. And we also sang for a while in the chorus of the Chicago Opera, oh so many years ago I shiver to recall.
Daddy found some of my notes about Gertrude. To my surprise it did not make him too angry. But he would not say what he thought. Daddy's lips now form one very thin bloodless line. The doctor mentioned his pale lips, and when the doctor mentions anything it means there's something wrong. He never mentions anything good after his examination.
"Daddy will be leaving me," I keep saying, and my voice chokes. (I do talk to myself more and more.)
And when Daddy goes, how strange, there will only be Gertrude to occupy my thoughts with.
She was not a beautiful girl. Her chin was too pointed.I even once thought of plastic surgery, for the rest of her face was quite lovely with beautiful large green eyes, and lovely Titian-colored hair. Her skin would have been more pleasing had she not been such an inveterate sun-bather. It was her body that attracted the men. And it was men that occupied most of her time when she was not painting her peculiar oil portraits, portraits which now hang in many of the world's museums. I never liked them. I still do not. I am only responsive to the Old Masters, but as she once said to me, "That's because you don't even know how to look at them."
I sometimes think she had so many fellows because it was her way of spiting me.
Daddy and I never discuss her penchant. It was the word Daddy once used for Gertrude's many love affairs.
And it was from one of her many boyfriends that I heard used the phrase one-night stands.
"All you are good for is one-night stands, Gertrude," I heard this young man say to her as I was about to rap on her studio door. They heard somebody outside and I scurried away. I think Gertrude knew it was me. I was not eavesdropping (she later accused me of this), I was about to knock, but couldn't bear to let her know I had heard what I had heard. She thought I did not know what she did when she was not before her easel. Men men men. She could not get enough of men. Daddy knew it, but I think Daddy has this great gift I do not possess, he can shut his eyes to almost everything he does not want to think about.
It was Daddy who persuaded me at the beginning of our courtship to attend the Plymouth Brothers Church, but I was a poor believer.
I don't think Daddy knows he is failing. And I don't think as a result that I know he is. He looks despite the mask of age over his face like a young boy at times. When I note that youthfulness on his face he stirs and gazes at me with a troubled frightened expression.
"What is it, Carrie," he will say. "What is on your mind?"
"Nothing at all, Daddy," I always reply. "Don't you worry now.
He smiles then a grim smile. We both know things are changing.
Copyright © 1997 by James Purdy
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