New news from one of the best writers in the South
“Local Souls”, a three-volume short story, was Allan Gurganus’ last book, published in 2007. It was brilliant and inspiring, and this one, “The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus”, is just as good.
These nine stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta and Tin House, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Sewanee Review, great magazines that help keep the news alive.
These are fleshed out stories, not flash fiction. Entirely developed over twenty pages, they give the impression of short, complete and satisfying novels.
The oldest story here is “The Mortician Confesses”, 1993, and like many of these stories, its subject matter is bold.
Located in the fictional Gurganus Falls, North Carolina, the narrator is a deputy sheriff who records his official report. He and his partner almost accidentally discovered the local undertaker, as the British say, “interfering with” Deborah Jo Hartman’s body in the back of a hearse.
Of course, this is grotesque, for the member and the reader, but as he records his story, in a sort of stream of consciousness, with stunned honesty, to his own amazement, he admits to having felt, watching the naked corpse, “a tiny bit, if not desire, then imagination. Yoosh!”
The deputy, who is not a philosopher, nevertheless realizes that “we do not have the first idea of what is hidden in the human heart”.
The opening and most recent story, published in 2020, “The Wish of a Good Young Doctor,” is coincidentally timely, coming at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
An arrogant 26-year-old popular culture scholar from the University of Iowa does “research” by visiting flea markets and antique shops for handmade folk toys, usually sculptures. His attitude towards this folk art is largely ironic.
At Theodosia’s Antiques, he spots an old oil painting, a portrait, and Theodosia takes over. She tells our narrator that it was the town doctor who had just graduated from medical school in 1849 who had to deal with a cholera epidemic brought there to rural Iowa, by a local boy who had sailed for adventure in China.
Young Dr. Petrie devoted himself to helping his new townspeople, making home visits to all the sick and dying. He advises them to isolate themselves in groups, to stay at home, to take care of each other, not to neglect anyone. The advice is premonitory and priceless, and for a while he’s a hero, but when he gets sick they turn on him or even blame him.
In the story “Fourteen feet of water in my house,” the narrator, an insurance agent, wakes up at 3 am in his room. He comes out the second story window and, with his aluminum fishing boat, sets out to rescue friends and neighbors, as well as strangers. As the night passes, we learn more about him and the town of Falls.
He lives in one of the most beautiful and oldest houses in the city, bought by his father, who hoped to climb the social ladder. But the father sold shoes, knelt in front of wealthy women, and Falls’ social strata were granite.
Behind his back, the father’s nickname among the cocky smug was “Shoe.”
There is the story of a boy carried through the air by a tornado. Years later, this boy is persuaded to put into words the feelings he felt during this bizarre flight.
“Fetch” is the story of the transcendent love of a wealthy and sophisticated couple for their old dog.
Gurganus is 73 years old and is not afraid of anything. The undertaker’s story has a risky dimension, shall we say, and in “My Heart Is a Snake Farm” an elderly librarian, retired and moved to Florida, has her first and only sexual experience, unusual but entirely. satisfactory.
Many of the stories are of old people, facing, changing, accepting these changes.
An elderly lady, on a historical tour of the falls, has a sort of nervous breakdown.
In “He’s in the Office,” a dedicated employee can’t help but go to work. His family compromises and consoles him, building a replica of his office in the house.
It’s top-notch, exploratory, demanding, serious fiction, but with moments of humor, with twists and turns, surprises, psychological revelations – Henry James examining a small town in Caroline.
John Milton feared that the audience for “Paradise Lost” was “in good shape but few”. He knew the subject was controversial, contentious, and the poem was long and dense. Gurganus is not John Milton, and, as novelist John Barth once told me, we must not, in fact, we cannot deny the public his taste. We all love fiction which is entertaining, inspiring, uplifting.
But the rewards of literary fiction do more than reward effort.
Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.
“The Untold Stories of Allan Gurganus”
Author: Allan Gurganus
Publisher: Liveright Pub. Co.
Price: $ 25.95 (Hardcover