‘About Jessie Mae’ by James Purdy

Purdy, James 1957

About Jessie Mae by James Purdy, 1957

The magic trick:

Letting the reader imagine the town and the Jessie Mae character only through a conversation between two neighbors 

It seems so simple. Write a dialogue between two characters, call it a story, get it published. Of course, a single scene story is probably one of the most difficult things to write well. “About Jessie Mae” is an expertly done example.

It helps that Purdy nails the tone for the women. They are judgmental but too harmless to be mean; they are comical but not clownish. The biggest trick is the world the women manage to create with their gossip. Instead of seeing this Florida town and meeting this Jessie Mae character through narrative or description, the reader gets to imagine all of it through the words of the two women. The result is somehow more vivid than had it been explicitly detailed in the story. And that’s quite a trick on Purdy’s part.

The selection:

“…She hasn’t had a strong hand over her since the day her old father died. She’s done just as she pleased every second. But the thing that nobody seems to know, and nobody can believe even when you tell them, is that the whole house is nothing but a haven for dogs. Jessie Mae has thirty pedigree dogs if she has one!”

“Well, I never,” Mrs. Hemlock said.

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