Book Review: In a Shallow Grave by James Purdy

In a Shallow Grave - Kindle edition by Purdy, James, Schenker, Andrew.  Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Title: In a Shallow Grave

Author: James Purdy

Genre: Classic LGBTQIA+ Fiction

Number of Pages: 130

Rating: B-

Recommended?: Yes


Okay, I’m going to keep this review pretty short because I’m still not sure what I think of this book. In a Shallow Grave is a truly weird novel, with strange and sketchy characters doing strange and sketchy things. It’s sad and disturbing, but I failed to emotionally connect to the material- the writing, however, was strong and it was filled with luridly vivid scenes and memorable moments. I’m just not sure how much the scattering of great scenes added up to a cohesive whole.

Garnet Montrose is a Vietnam veteran who comes home to his small Virginia so disfigured that people vomit and faint and the sight of him. He needs someone who will come over to his house and help take care of him, and he hires two different men who aren’t as disgusted by him as the others- a quiet African-American named Quintus who reads to him, and a mysterious loner (Daventry) who sends Garnet’s ex-girlfriend letters. After an incident when Garnet came back from the war, the young woman refuses to have anything to do with Garnet but he keeps trying to win her back. As time goes on, though, Garnet starts to have romantic feelings for Daventry and his ex-girlfriend gradually begins to slide out of his mind.

This book is Southern Gothic with a capital S- very moody and strange. Garnet is not a particularly likable character and one that’s hard to connect to, though I certainly felt sympathy for his sad and unhappy existence. The writing style was odd but compelling- I liked how Garnet’s narrative combined ‘typical’ uneducated Southern slang and more elevated and hoity-toity speech he picked up from all his reading. It was also cool to see my home state of VA portrayed in a novel.

The setting doesn’t feel moored in one particular time frame, creating a otherworldly sense of isolation and grief. The characters were all really bizarre and inexplicable, except for maybe Quintus (by far the most normal of all of them.) I felt a certain disconnect from them because I didn’t understand them. The ending was abrupt but I liked how it ended on a surprisingly hopeful note, even though Garnet had lost almost everything. Even though it wasn’t exactly happy, it showed someone coming through for Garnet and making his life a little less agonizingly lonely.

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