Podcast of Allan Gurganus reading at UCLA Hammer Library on October 10, 2013
Collections collect collectors. It doesn’t work the other way around.
Other boys of 7 owned leather satchels full of marbles. But marbles themselves somehow left me cold. So I assembled multiple marble bags. Something about them spoke to me. “How many do you think you’ll finally need, son?” my father asked, sounding concerned. I arranged my Top 10 best along a windowsill and invited family to a private viewing. They didn’t get it.
Photos by Frank Hunter
Allan Gurganus’s debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, became an instant classic when it was published in 1989. In his long-awaited follow-up, Local Souls, Gurganus returns to Falls, NC, to present three novellas about the new South. He talks to Noah Charney about using different handwriting for his manuscripts, why he doesn’t outline, and how he made his father proud…
It’s been 12 years since Gurganus last published a full-length work — but if there remains any doubt of his literary greatness, his fifth book, “Local Souls,” should put it to rest forever. A triptych of novellas set on the banks of the River Lithium in the same fictional town of Falls, N.C., where most of his work has taken place, “Local Souls” is a tour de force in the tradition of Hawthorne. It shows that Gurganus’s vast creative and imaginative powers, still rooted in the local, are increasingly universal in scope and effect. The book is an expansive work of love with not a sentence that (as Gurganus once said regarding Hannah) “hasn’t first been sung aloud at 3 a.m. beside some river at a hunting camp.” The prose is taut with the electric charge of internal rhyme, assonance and alliteration. Each touch yields an invigorating shock: “Numbers numbed the male ache, offered some sort of splint. They spared men the slack wet press of full female Emotion.” Or: “Student adolescence keeps walls infused with a sebaceous sweetness akin to curry.” Or: “Even to herself she seemed overdetermined, annealed, fused too early by some smelter’s blast into being one thing only.”
A witty and soulful trio of novellas by master storyteller Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1989, etc.), who claims his place here as the laureate of the Southern cul-de-sac.
Falls, North Carolina—the setting of Widow, and a significant place in other moments of Gurganian geography—is hicksville turned gated suburb, the milieu of sometimes haunted, often dissatisfied souls with secrets to keep. Some of them, nestled among the dogwoods and carefully clipped yards, have seen more than they should. Some have found redemption of a kind, as with the protagonist of a story nested within a story in the opening piece, “Fear Not,” in which the gentle daughter of a local worthy learns of the son that she had to give up for adoption after having been raped by her godfather. She knew nothing about the child, “one taken without her even discovering its sex,” but now, years later, she knows something of life—and all that is packed within just the first “act,” as Gurganus calls it. Gurganus manages the neat hat trick of blending the stuff of everyday life with Faulkner-ian gothic and Chekhov-ian soul-searching, all told in assured language that resounds, throughout all three novellas, in artfully placed sententiae: “Some people’s futures look so smooth, only sadists would bother delivering even temporary setbacks.” “I soon learned: journalism and motherhood are two fields jet-fueled by frequent triage caffeine blasts.” This being the South, the Civil War figures in sometimes odd ways, from a subject of fiction to a matter of quotidian life; in the second novella, indeed, it’s recapitulated in the struggle between exes on opposite coasts. Race figures, too, as Gurganus writes of the well-heeled duffers of Falls’s premier country club as having “secret kinsmen hidden one or two counties away,” a case in point, in a fine “Rose for Emily” moment, being a “clay-colored” man who now stands among them. Whatever their subject, and told from widely different points of voice, male and female, young and old, the novellas have a conversational tone and easy manner that are testimony to the author’s craftsmanship.
A gem, like Gurganus’ predecessor collection of novellas, The Practical Heart (2002). Readers will eagerly await the next news out of Falls.
In the words of Allan’s former teacher John Irving, “Allan is quite right to make fun of the sexual uptightness at The New York Times and in Dwight Garner’s prudish review of “Local Souls” in those “All the News that’s Fit to Print” pages.”
Read the interview with Allan titled The Fear of Sex in Fiction: The New Shyness