Allan Gurganus spins three separate stories in this chronicle of life in a small North Carolina town.
Reviewed by D.G. Myers for Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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Ever since Sherwood Anderson published "Winesburg, Ohio" in 1919, American writers who set out to describe small-town life have struggled with his influence like an inherited disease. Allan Gurganus is no different. The people of Falls, North Carolina – the small town that serves as the setting of the three novellas in Local Souls, his fifth book of fiction – are grotesques who smashed their moral compass long ago (if they ever had one) and now find themselves wandering aimlessly along the edges of an insular and isolated community. They are "souls born to stay local," solitary and self-pitying over their marginal status, "stranded in some garrison town." With an upgrade of their electrical gadgets and a WiFi connection, they could have stepped from Anderson's pages. Even the map printed as a frontispiece, with the sites of key events carefully flagged, looks like the map in "Winesburg, Ohio."
Gurganus is best known for his 1989 debut. "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," a 700-page "Little Big Man" of the Civil War and its aftermath, was published when he was 42. It enjoyed all the ripe, sweet fruits of the blockbuster: months-long stay on the New York Times bestseller list, Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, Hollywood adaptation. Gurganus has never come close to duplicating its success, has never seemed to want to. "Plays Well with Others" may be the better novel – a story that did for pre-AIDS New York what Aharon Appelfeld's "Badenheim 1939" did for pre-Holocaust Europe – but it attracted less than one-eighth the attention of his first novel. He is probably at his best in Henry James's "ideal, the beautiful and blest nouvelle," the genre of fiction that marries the tight effects of a short story to the larger vision of a novel. "Local Souls" is Gurganus's second collection, following "The Practical Heart" just over a decade later.
"Fear Not," the opening tale, is told by a writer who sounds suspiciously like Gurganus himself. Having "FedExed north [his] Civil War novel" a few days earlier, he is "becalmed and itchy between novels." As a favor to a friend, he attends a high school production of "Sweeney Todd" to watch his teenage godson in a supporting role. There a glamorous couple catches his eye – "tall athletic blondes," "the lion-kingly." Immediately his "narrative capacity" kicks in. "A storyteller's first task is knowing the tale when he sees it," he says. To redeem curiosity from voyeurism, he must ferret out the whole story. And what a story! A boating accident (water skier, decapitation) leads to the seduction of a minor and then incest: rarely has Southern Gothic been narrated with such good cheer.
Throughout, Gurganus keeps his attention focused on the possibility for happiness in even the most twisted of fates. If the ending seems arbitrary and unlikely, the reason is that Gurganus prefers comedy, whose tranquility may seem just as arbitrary and unlikely, to the inevitable door slam of tragedy. For him the human problem is to find some "route to joy" (most are "detours," he adds), and to bless those who manage to find one.
In "Saints Have Mothers," the comic ending is an even more satisfying break with the "iron neck-brace of expectation." Caitlin Mulray, an overachieving high school student with a reputation for left-wing preening (she wins a national contest for Best Poem Concerning the Homeless) and uninhibited selflessness (she donates her mother's shoes to charity without asking), travels to Africa in the summer between her junior and senior years to "drill ABC's into tribal babies with flies working the wet corners of their little eyes." She drowns while swimming in an African river. A phone call from the interior asks her mother, Jean, where to send the body. She wires the money to pay for the international shipment.
An unreliable narrator whose IQ swells from 156 to 171 over the course of the story (even if she does say so herself), Jean throws all her energies into planning a memorial service for Caitlin. She commissions an original piece of music and enlists the Virginia Symphony Orchestra to play it. She even summons the courage, although paralyzed by stage fright her entire adult life, to prepare a passage from the Book of Common Prayer to recite in her daughter's memory.