by D.G. Martin
Say Allan Gurganus’s name in a group of readers, and several may tell you that the Rocky Mount native’s “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” is their favorite novel of all time.
“Widow” came out in 1989, followed in 1990 by “Plays Well with Others.” Then there were a couple of short story collection, including “White People,” but no other new books from Gurganus in many years.
So, what has he been doing? “Writing, every day,” he says, “and getting up at 6 a.m. to do it.”
Finally, next week we can buy and read a new Gurganus book, one that takes us back to the fictional eastern North Carolina town of Falls, where “Widow” and many of his short stories have been set.
“Local Souls” is not a novel, but three separate novellas. All are set in Falls, but the characters and stories are independent and quite different.
Susan, the main character in the first novella, “Fear Not,” is a 14-year-old all-American girl growing up in Falls when her father dies in a boating accident. Seduced and made pregnant by her godfather, she gives up her baby, pulls her life together, later marries, has two children, and leads a normal life until she is reunited with the child she gave up. Then her life is transformed in a surprising and puzzling way, one that only Gurganus could conjure up.
In the second novella, “Saints Have Mothers,” a divorced woman, smart and ambitious enough to have published a poem in The Atlantic magazine, has two boys and a 17-year-old girl. The daughter is more committed to serving those in need than she is to her mother. But her mother’s life is wrapped up in hopes for her daughter’s future. When the daughter announces that she plans to go to Africa on a service project, the mother objects. But the daughter goes anyway. Communication with her daughter is spotty until a middle of the night phone call brings word of the daughter’s death. As the mother and the Falls community prepare for a memorial service, Gurganus brings the story to a shocking and touching conclusion.
The third novella, “Decoy,” is the history of a relationship between two men. One is a beloved family doctor, part of an established Falls family. The other is a newcomer, who came from the poverty of struggling farm life, but has achieved modest financial success and near acceptance by Falls’s elite. When the doctor retires, their friendship is disturbed and then swept away by a “Fran-like” flood that destroys both men’s homes and much of Falls.
With these three stories, Gurganus demonstrates that he has not lost the story-telling power that propelled him to fame.
And he leaves us hoping that we will not have to wait so long for his next offering.
Others agree. John Irving, author of “The World According to Garp,” writes, “Gurganus’s storytelling is flawless. His narration becomes a Greek chorus, Sophocles in North Carolina. Gurganus makes the preternatural feel natural. Sexual taboos, a parent’s worst fears: these emerge in tones comic and horrifying. Each novella delivers an ending of true force.”
Ann Patchett, author of “Bel Canto” and a former student of Gurganus, says he “breathes so much life into the town of Falls, North Carolina, his reader is able to walk down the streets and mingle with the local souls. This book underscores what we have long known—Gurganus stands among the best writers of our time.”
More important than this praise, Gurganus’s fiction gives us a true look at our fellow North Carolinians in a struggling region as they cope with the challenges of contemporary times.