In ‘Local Souls’ Gurganus finds Greek drama in small town life

With “Local Souls,” his first book in 12 years, Allan Gurganus proves once again that small-town life in the New South can be as tragic and twisted as anything out of an ancient Greek playbook.

After all, as one character observes, the “same events that overwhelm Greek dramas live on side streets paying taxes in our small towns.” But, he adds, to tell the tales, “someone careful would have to document into being coincidences and emotions… Instead of disapproving, someone could decide, where possible, to try and love all this alive.”

Gurganus does just that in this collection of novellas, returning readers to the small-town setting of Falls, N.C., patterned after Gurganus’ hometown, Rocky Mount, and focusing on three residents “born to stay local.”

• A beautiful teenager, whose promise is cut short by her father’s premature death and an unwanted pregnancy, discovers an unusual way to regain her bearing.

• A mother eclipsed by her remarkable young daughter struggles with her newfound celebrity when the girl disappears during a missionary trip to Africa.

• A man’s faith in his family doctor suffers when the doctor retires and trades his former patients in for a profitable new hobby: duck sculpture.

Despite the length of his prize-winning debut novel, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” which weighed in at over 700 pages, Gurganus has written more short fiction than long, including another collection of novellas (“The Practical Heart”) and a book of short stories (“White People”). His stories appear regularly in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review, in addition to being widely anthologized.

The shorter form finds Gurganus as loquacious as ever, his knotty prose densely descriptive and as urgent as headline news: “In a row of girlfriends, she rests on heated sand detergent-white.” At its crispest — “stubble blued the jaw without a neck” — it reads like Morse code; at its most lyrical, like poetry: “Something had befallen her when young. Everything since had leaked, dark, from one offshore mishap.”

Gurganus, who, like his characters, has stayed put in Hillsborough, N.C. since 1992, gets the small-town vibe just right: “What big cities might call Sadism little towns call Fun.”

The chatty, roundabout storytelling, the wicked humor and sense of the absurd, often disguises the gravity of these investigations into life’s tendency to “retract its promise overnight,” to “become a vale of tears breaking over you in sudden lashing.” Hidden above the safe confines of The Falls, Zeus readies his lightning bolts.

The linked stories flow into one another through mythological and religious underpinnings: Disguised as daughters, mothers, fathers, bankers and sets of twins, these golden gods and goddesses recognize each other, sleep together, have children, lose them. “Fear Not” offers a modern take on the Oedipus story. “Saints Have Mothers” spins the myth of Persephone and Demeter; a Biblical flood in “Decoy” deluges the town. Even in the era of Internet and global warming, angels appear, both to guard and warn of danger.

But Gurganus’s main focus is a mortal one: those humans trapped in a less-than-spectacular existence who have yet to make the “one true choice.” To explore this, Gurganus bundles questions of sexuality, identity, inheritance, wealth and class, asking what’s required for these all-too local souls to find their heart’s desires again.

His love for Chekhov, a country doctor and writer “whose serf granddad had bought his own family’s freedom,” becomes another motif that underscores the choice between an empty life and “a humane calling, some worthy sacrifice.” Doctors are scattered throughout the text, characters read Russian literature, and many, like Chekhov, have made their way into the Falls’ polite society from a peasant background.

For some, simply staying put has been a badge of legitimacy, “a Purple Heart, for meritorious immobility.” For others, selfhood comes by association. “She’s the only somebody this particular whatever has ever really had,” says the mother of a daughter too angelic to be believed.

In “Decoy,” the book’s deepest, most affecting meditation on what it takes to reconnect with our center, an insurance salesman with an incurable heart condition describes his uneasy relationship with the doctor who has cared for him since childhood. When the doctor retires to take up decoy carving, his former patient sees it as a metaphor for everything from his longing for a bona fide self to their broken friendship. A devastating flood reunites the two in this extraordinary look at the recurring themes in our lives that create the myths we live.

Fans of Gurganus’ short fiction are in luck: Liveright & Co. has plans to publish “The Selected Short Stories of Allan Gurganus,” a collection of 20 new and older stories, as well as a companion novel to “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” called “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.”

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