It’s been 30 years since Blue Velvet peeled the designer veil off of suburbia to reveal the dark impulses scurrying around underneath, and the books and movies that have since picked up that film’s themes of competing civility and repression are legion. With this in mind, Toronto poet Michael Knox’s debut novel may initially seem derivative – not so much of David Lynch, but of Rick Moody, Tom Perrotta, Alan Ball, and other writers interested in the lurking terror of the everyday. Even if his basic scenario seems dispiritingly familiar, however, Knox finds enough interesting variations on the material to carry his slender, three-part narrative to a smartly sketched and choreographed conclusion.
Structurally, Harshly Purring toggles between the perspectives of three characters, who are superficially different – clear avatars of the upper, middle, and working class – yet united by geography (the book is set outside Toronto) and a litany of troubling, unflattering tics and traits. They are fixated on the women in (and in one case, recently out of) their lives, each nursing specific resentments, ranging from the waning of sex during marriage to a bad breakup to the shadows of a long-ago divorce.
“Is this how a misogynst behaves?” asks the first narrator pleadingly, and while he surely intends the question rhetorically – Knox turns the reader into a sounding board for some toxic attitudes – the author is also crafting a lens through which to view the work as a whole. Each of the three story strands is defined by how its respective male protagonist views the opposite sex, and Knox shows a real (and uncomfortable) finesse for getting inside the skin of men whose bottomless capacities for self-justification block out curiosity, empathy, and respect.
With this in mind, the thing that would seem to be Harshly Purring’s central flaw – the monotonous similarity of its subjects’ worldviews – becomes arguably its greatest strength. This is not to say that they all speak in the same voice: Knox has been careful to vary the vocabulary for a properly choral effect. (The last of the three narrators, an executive-class ogre reconnecting with his college-age son, is a creature of magnanimous cruelty.) But the carefully inserted repetitions of dialogue and description suggest we’re meant to see these men as existing along a continuum of weakness, vanity, and desire. Knox thankfully doesn’t petition the reader for sympathy, even as he ensures that the pathologies – of addiction, attraction, and avoidance – remain plausible.
Harshly Purring is surely schematic, but its meticulous structure mirrors the coping mechanisms of its characters. This is a cold, clear, precise piece of writing that deserves distinction: its examination of isolation stands apart from the crowd