It tells the story of a traumatized and disfigured war veteran who haunts (and eventually loses) his family home, which is a former slave plantation. The veteran spends his time reading books he doesn’t understand and writing letters to a young widow he is trying to court. These letters are written in an affected language imitating the incomprehensible books, and she accepts them only out of pity and only after being told to do so by a minister. The veteran’s only friends are his “applicants,” a black man and a handsome wanderer who keep him company and deliver his letters. The latter eventually sacrifices his life for him.
The language and the plotting of this book are disarmingly simple but self-consciously off-kilter. The narrative frame of reference is clearly gothic. As I read two novels kept coming to mind: Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Harry Crews’s The Gospel Singer. I’m not sure either is is very much like Purdy’s novel, but something in the veteran’s efforts at love reminded me of McCuller’s love triangle, and his oddly sophisticated and manipulative naiveté reminded me of Crew’s protagonist.
What all of this means for me is that In a Shallow Grave reaches back to and evokes one of my very first adult literary passions. It’s one that predates this blog by years, and since I don’t read much of what gets called post-war “Southern Gothic” anymore, it has remained mostly invisible here. But it’s real and deep-seated, and as a result, I read this novel warmed by a deep reserve of sympathy for it’s project and style. Happily for me, it paid back the good will by being fresh rather than mannered.