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Story Review: About Jessie Mae by James Purdy

About Jessie Mae by James Purdy

About Jessie Mae is about, well, Jessie Mae. According to her distant cousin Myrtle, she is well-off but she is untidy and dirty. She leaves her jewelry all around her big house so that she could entice her servants and her guests, Myrtle included, to steal and have the pleasure of accusing them of theft. She lets her pedigreed dogs romp around the house. She’s basically an abomination if one is to believe all the things that Myrtle tells her neighbor, Mrs. Hemlock. Yes, the two women gossip about this Jessie Mae over fruit punch and fudge bars, and what does that say about these two?

There is a line from the movie Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley, that perfectly captures what gossip is. It is delivered through a sermon by Father Flynn, played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman. In the sermon, Father Flynn talks about a woman and another priest, Father O’Rourke. The former asks the latter whether gossiping is a sin. The priest says yes; it is bearing false witness against your neighbor. The woman is sorry and asks for forgiveness. And I’ll copy-paste the rest of the sermon here:

‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’

Going back to the short story, one can note the moral superiority that the gossiping women display through their exchanges. It is ironic if one is to consider the biblical context of gossip, although this doesn’t necessarily imply that the women come from religious backgrounds. I wish not to summon images of stereotyped small-town women who go to church every Sunday, tend to their gardens as if their lives depended on it, and exchange secret recipes, but I cannot help it. One more that I can’t help from imagining is the bitterness that these women may harbor. Do they resent their privileged cousins and condemn them for their way of life? Are the gossips that they indulge themselves reflective of their lost hopes and repressed desires? Are they to be believed and to be sympathized with?

The story is entirely fueled by dialogue. The author does this masterly as one could perfectly picture Myrtle and Mrs. Hemlock chatting from the porch to the kitchen, mixing pleasantries with acid comments about Jessie Mae. With each story from Myrtle, one becomes more interested in Jessie Mae. And you know what? Jessie Mae never makes an appearance in the story.

And why should she? It’s not like the things that Myrtle says about her will change anything for her. It makes me wonder if she’ll even care that her pillow’s feathers are strewn everywhere. She still has her big house, her servants, her jewels, her dogs. Myrtle and Mrs. Hemlock only have their gossip. And that’s a sad thought.

Listen to Sam Lipsyte reading this story at The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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