The Omnivorous Reader
Waiting for Gurganus
And savoring his short fiction
By D.G. Martin
Like two other important North Carolina authors’ debut novels, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel in 1929 and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain in 1997, Allan Gurganus’ Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All in 1989 caught the nation’s attention and stayed at the top of the bestseller lists for months. It has sold over 4 million copies and become an American classic.
Set in the 1980s, the book is narrated by 99-year-old Lucy Marsden, who married 50-year-old Col. William Marsden when she was 15. She tells of her marriage to the Confederate veteran, his wartime experiences and the entertaining and poignant routine of her daily life in the fictional town of Falls, located somewhere near Rocky Mount.
Widow was followed in 1997 by Plays Well with Others. Sandwiched between the two novels are a couple of collections of short fiction, White People and The Practical Heart, the last published in 1993.
So, what had he been doing in the years afterward? “Writing, every day,” he says, “and getting up at 6 a.m. to do it.” Finally, in 2013 Gurganus published Local Souls, taking us back to Falls, where Widow and many of his short stories are set.
Local Souls is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, 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 sons and a 17-year-old daughter. The daughter is more committed to serving those in need than she is to her mother, whose 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 still goes. 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’ 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 its complex characters and plot, “Decoy” deserved to be a separate book. In 2015 that happened, and it sold well as a stand-alone.
In his latest book, The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus (January 2021), several stories take readers back to Falls.
In one story, “The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC),” a tour guide narrates and takes a hard look at the town. She begins: “Moving along nicely. No stragglers, please. Incorporated in 1824, almost immediately made the county seat, Falls still boasts five thousand local souls. We’re down from our peak seven thousand during the commercial boom of ’98, 18 — 98. See that arched bridge? Some say that yonder River Lithium accounts for both our citizens’ soothed temperaments and for how hard we find leaving home. Few local students, matriculating up north, last long there.”
Longtime fans of Gurganus will appreciate the inside look at his favorite town. Newcomers will find that the tour of Falls forms the basis for another engaging Gurganus tale.
The new book includes one of my favorites. In “A Fool for Christmas,” Vernon Ricketts, a pet store manager in a mall near Falls, is the lead character and narrator. He is the fool for Christmas who cannot resist a call to take care of a homeless teenager, keep her warm, and help her hide from the security officer, who is dedicated to getting such undesirables out of the mall. The teenager is pregnant, and Gurganus’ story draws on the Biblical account of Christ’s birth in a way that brings out the same sort of deep feelings.
Gurganus wrote this story for NPR’s All Things Considered in 2004 and read it on the program. He has rewritten it regularly. Last year it made its way into print in a limited edition that sold out quickly. The story’s inclusion assures that the new book will be a family treasure.
Perhaps the book’s most timely story is “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” which was published first in The New Yorker in April last year. It is set in a rural village in the Midwest during a cholera epidemic in 1850, where a young doctor does his best to save its citizens. But when many die, the doctor is blamed.
How did Gurganus manage to time his story to coincide with the current pandemic? He says he finished the story early in 2020, “on the day that coronavirus appeared for the first time in The New York Times. And the context was completely changed. I sent it to my agent, who sent it to The New Yorker, which bought it in a day, and it appeared two weeks later.”
These stories and six more in the new book will remind us of the talented North Carolinian’s ability to make us laugh painfully at ourselves and our neighbors while we wait for his long-promised, long-delayed opus, An Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.
When I pushed him to tell us when it would be finished, Gurganus smiled and said, “I’ve got a lot of material. Every time I think I’ve finished the book, somebody tells me another story about a corrupt preacher and the choir director. And I add another chapter. So I think it might be a trilogy instead of a single volume.”
I am waiting hopefully.
But I am not holding my breath. PS
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.