Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Richard Ford, in his 2004 introduction to Barry Hannah's short story collection Airships, noted that literary greatness is achieved when a writer can combine "a fresh sentence-level flair and a rigorous focus on the story at hand." Yet he names only a few writers who have achieved it: William Faulkner, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah. ("Talk of the Townies" by Jamie Quatro, The New York Times Book Review, October 11, 2013).

To Quatro, there are serious omissions on that list - not least of which is the name Allan Gurganus. Gurganus is best known for his tome, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, published in 1989 at 700+ pages. It was a New York Times bestseller for eight months and was made into a two-part mini series. This book was followed by another novel, Plays Well With Others, a short story collection White People; and a collection of four novellas, The Practical Heart. (The New York Times Book Review, op. cit.)

Local Souls, Gurganus' fifth book, rivals some of the best work of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty. Like these fine writers of Southern Gothic, Local Souls explores the loneliness inherent in social isolation and employs shocking situations such as death by beheading, incest, and sex with a grieving minor. And this is only in the first novella! Yet what is unique about Gurganus' writing is the synchronicity of  humor and pain as well as what Jamie Quatro calls the "sentence-level pyrotechnics and capacious inventions of plot."

In the first novella, "Fear Not," the narrator is suspiciously similar to Gurganus himself.  After having spent seven years writing and researching his Civil War novel, the narrator is "between books.". While attending his teenage godson's performance in Sweeney Todd, he observes the ambiance of his surroundings. "This toasty auditorium smells of industrial floor wax. Student adolescence keeps walls infused with a sebaceous sweetness akin to curry." (p. 15)

Although the crowd is comprised of "the same dutiful adults" who appear year after year, the narrator is struck by a glamorous couple who take their seats next to him. His best friend, Jenna, now seated, writes him a telling note: NOTICE PAIR. SAVE HUNCHES. STORY AFTER. GOOD.

What follows is a story that is as heartfelt as it is shocking - a story that pushes all boundaries, and yet, never loses compassion for the characters involved.

The next novella, "Saints Have Mothers," has the reader questioning just who is the "saint." In it, we are introduced to our first-person narrator, Jean Mulray - a woman who has forsaken becoming a poet to fully devoting her energies to her family. The result: her husband leaves her for another woman and her "saintly" daughter becomes increasingly insufferable. Gurganus paints a portrait of Caitlin Mulray as a self-righteous philanthopist more concerned with children in Africa than the well-being of her mother. Ultimately, there is a shocking turn of events that this reviewer does not wish to reveal.

But the piece de resistance is the final novella, "Decoy."  Like the other novellas in the collection, the story takes place in Falls, North Carolina. Marion Roper has been designated "Doc" since his boyhood. He has always been the shining star, the person most likely to succeed.  After medical school, he returns to Falls to care for its denizens.  Among them is Bill Mabry. Suffering from a disorder that affects his heart, Dr. Roper promises to keep Mabry alive for as long as he can.  Mabry has a first appointment with Doc every Monday - an appointment that cements his love and admiration for the doctor.  But the love is one-sided; Marion Roper is a god in the town, and gods are unknowable.

When Roper retires at age 70, he creates another career for himself--that of an artist.  He becomes renown as a carver of duck decoys and his creations become collectors' items. Bill longs to own one of these decoys, and in an act of hubris and callousness, Doc refuses to sell to his longtime patient.

But what happens in Gurganus' world when objects take on more value than humans? When latent homosexual yearnings go unrecognized and feared?  What happens to the Falls residents, including  Marion Roper, when a flood of biblical proportions levels the town and destroys his prize possessions? As Mabry observes:

You reach an age when you open your morning newspapers not to Sports, the Funnies, but Obits. At our age, Jan and I knew dozens who had "preceded us," as morticians must say.  Such acquaintances become your own silent majority of friends. But it wasn't that. That in itself is strangely not so tough on people of our given vintage. It's not the lost; it the lingerers that slay you. You don't usually have to see the deceased up and out walking. (p. 323)

"Decoy" is a spell-binding novella that explores the limits of friendship and the loneliness engendered by being "different." It looks at class, male friendship, loss, and ultimately, the indignities and isolation of old age.

Taken as a whole, Local Souls is a tour de force that is impossible to put down.

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