Allan Gurganus, the fearfully gifted Southern writer, has not been idle over the past 10 years; he’s simply in no rush to get his fiction to press. “Some people publish a book a year,” he notes on his website. “I consider that about as unseemly as having a baby every ten months.”
Obviously, his sense of humor remains intact, as does his insistence on marching to his own delightfully idiosyncratic bugle corps. The author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, lauded as a masterpiece, and the sublime story collection White People, now brings us Local Souls, his collection of three novellas set in the small town of Falls, N.C. (also the hometown in Oldest Living Confederate Widow). While geography glues these three tales together, even more binding are the themes of parents and children and the ever-present specter of death.
Fear Not opens with a family outing on a lake that ends in a father’s accidental death. The man responsible, the dad’s best friend, plunges into shock, but even more traumatized are the deceased’s wife and daughter. Out of the whole terrible episode comes an unwanted teenage pregnancy; the daughter, nicknamed Fearnot, gives up her baby for adoption. She appears to remake her life as a perfect wife and mother in the capital of the New South, a place Gurganus captures brilliantly: “This Atlanta commuter community had been so recently settled, everyone felt ‘new here.’ Even closest pals accepted only the history each woman opted to present. Whole girlhood starter marriages, dank bisexual stints in the WACS, reductions of inherited hooked noses, so much went unmentioned. Atlanta, once burned by Sherman, that day became the capital for starting over. Southerners in need of anonymity favored it.”
Regret for her lost child so consumes Fearnot that her present life recedes in importance. Eventually, she and her long-lost son reunite, with consequences that will cause readers to shudder. As Gurganus notes, “Same events that overwhelm Greek dramas live on side streets paying taxes in our smallest towns.”
Saints Have Mothers is also set in Falls, but the real setting is the narrator’s mind. In a stream of rapid-fire sentences, Jean, the mother of child prodigy Caitlin, blurts out her story, as desperately compelled as any Ancient Mariner: “I, despite my publishing a poem in the Atlantic Monthly when I was just nineteen (if one stickily titled ‘Spring’s Gift [to Her]’), I will die famous — if at all — as somebody’s mother.” Her verbal energy and neurotic self-absorption quickly grow exhausting, as in passages where she confesses: “Overinformed on U.S. rogue-cop anti-eco foreign policy, my response has been to grow all our basil and tomatoes. Protesting the War for Petroleum, I’ve learned to change our Volvo wagon’s oil filter.”
The actual plot here is one of an unusually gifted teenager, much cherished and indulged, who travels to Africa to help the less fortunate and seems to disappear. Caitlin’s fate is the mystery, but the real drama comes from Jean’s unraveling psyche.
Gurganus also satirizes the current brand of hyper-vigilant parenting, in which one’s offspring are treated like geniuses to be painstakingly nurtured from the soccer field to lessons in Mandarin Chinese. If only Jean’s narrative voice were less grating.
The gem of Local Souls is the gorgeous Decoy, in which Gurganus removes the gloves and delivers the literary equivalent of a bare-knuckled knockout. Decoy is so good that you want to lob all sorts of adjectives its way: warm, humane, profound, sagacious, hilarious, nostalgic, and incisive.
The town of Falls becomes a vivid character, with its foibles and hidden histories. Insurance salesman Bill Mabry recounts two stories, moving between the town’s beloved Dr. Roper, who suddenly retires and takes up carving duck decoys, and his own family, headed by the colorful Red, a country rustic who engineered their climb up Falls’ social ladder. Red and Dr. Roper are the North and South Poles of Bill’s life. One has slightly embarrassed him with enthusiastic striving; the other slightly cows him with his perfection and Yale degree. Red Mabry bequeathed to his son a bad heart and fragile health, while Dr. Roper works to keep Bill living.
Change, even a catastrophe, comes to Falls, and our narrator continues to observe all the developments, external and interior: “As a kid, you start off feeling different from everybody else. But as time keeps washing you along, you grow half-proud of how animal-alike we are. Whoever escapes that? Who’d want to?” The last pages of Local Souls prove once again that there is no writer alive quite like Allan Gurganus.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.