100 Boyfriends

MCD. Feb. 2021. 192p. ISBN 9780374538989. pap. $15.
Purnell’s new work is, in the best sense, uncategorizable. It’s not quite a short story collection, even less so a novel, though characters and attributes and emotions bleed from one “story” into the next. What’s uniform here is that the narrators are all contextualized by the eponymous (ex-)boyfriends, though none are defined by them. It’s indicative of a guiding autonomy to the work, and, indeed, in one of the “stories,” titled “Boyfriend #100 / The Agent,” the narrator responds to a prompt for clarification on a poetry collection’s “journey”: “I don’t care for a journey…I’m just making a map, something that says, ‘You are HERE.’ ” It’s a succinct enough thesis of the collection, and what the author has built is a matrix of sorts—of queer men, yes, but more important, of the shapelessness and futility of such labels. Purnell writes rogues and deviants and innocents and the scorned, many of whom meld together, but all of whom are distinct and distinctly human. He executes this free-form vision in what feels like an explosion of pure, profane id, but he perfectly balances his archer instincts with moments of profound delicacy. Given the unconventional structure, it’s perhaps inevitable that there are moments, “stories,” that feel imbued with less power than others, but they never feel like an afterthought. It’s that strength of voice, the ability to carry through even quarter-page narratives with some amount of weight, that marks this as a work worth noting.
VERDICT An almost anarchic effort ready-made for adventurous readers; a prism refracting both the brutality and beauty of living.
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