“Local Souls: Novellas”
Author: Allan Gurganus
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corp.
Price: $25.95 (Cloth)
Allan Gurganus, after two big novels, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” and “Plays Well with Others,” which is set in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York, has turned increasingly to the long, long story, the novella. For him, as for Henry James, it is the perfect form, the piece readable in one sitting, perhaps between dinner and bedtime, with no mood-destroying interruptions.
“Local Souls” is a collection of three novellas, set in his fictional Falls, N.C., population 6,803. Citizens of Falls are known as The Fallen. Aren’t we all?
Gurganus’ first book in 12 years, “Local Souls” is a triumph. The sentences are as packed as haiku. The characters are brilliantly drawn. And in spite of relative brevity the plots are more than engaging; there are turns that shock and amaze.
The first, “Fear Not,” 86 pages, opens at a high school theatrical production of “Sweeney Todd.” The narrator, an author, is there to see his godson perform. Sitting directly in front of him is a luminous couple, “tall athletic blondes. ” They love one another; affectionately the man massages the woman’s neck.
The narrator’s companion tells him to observe the couple, think about them. Of course the novelist can do no other than create, in his imagination, the story of those two beautiful people. Afterwards he will be told their actual story. The truth is far more complex than what he had devised, involving grotesque accidents, second sight, unwanted pregnancy and, maybe, incest?
The second story, “Saints Have Mothers,” is 100 pages.
Here we have a middle-class mom with a daughter of such transcendent virtue it is infuriating for her and frankly for the reader as well. Her daughter, a genius who read aloud to mom while having her diapers changed, has made virtues into maddening vices. Caitlin gives away her lunch, rescues injured animals, plays flute in the all-state orchestra, and gives away their kitchen appliances and all her mother’s shoes to Goodwill, because others need them more. She has even won a national contest: Best Poem on the Homeless. And, she is “scarily pretty.”
Mother and daughter fight over Caitlin’s weirdly altruistic behavior.
Over her mother’s objections, Caitlin decides to spend the summer in Africa, doing good work, of course, and then the call comes that she has drowned. Mom, overwhelmed, must cope with loss and conflicted maternal feelings. Further revelations follow.
“Decoy,” the third, 141 pages, is both engrossing prose and a treatise on existentialism, authenticity, appearances and reality.
Doc Roper, a local hero, is Olympian, aloof. A splendid physician, one of his tasks in life is to keep Bill Mabry alive, with his congenital clogged heart arteries. Upon retirement, Doc commences carving duck decoys so cunningly wrought they are indistinguishable from the real thing. All ducks are fooled. Doc is superb at everything. It’s unreal.
The protagonist, Bill Mabry, is from a country family, now in Falls, in an upscale neighborhood, next to the River Lithium, faking it uncomfortably as an upper-middle-class townsperson. Living under a lifetime death sentence, Bill presents himself to the town as a cheerful seller of insurance; internally, he thinks, “Call me a decoy 9-5.”
The two men are bonded by Bill’s disease and Bill is so obsessed with Doc that Bill himself wonders: “had I really wanted to ‘do it’ with him or whatever?...nahh.”
Each of us is a mystery. Does anyone know us? Do we even know ourselves?
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”