Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Richard Ford, in his 2004 introduction to Barry Hannah's short story
collection Airships, noted that literary greatness is achieved when a
writer can combine "a fresh sentence-level flair and a rigorous focus on
the story at hand." Yet he names only a few writers who have achieved
it: William Faulkner, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah. ("Talk
of the Townies" by Jamie Quatro, The New York Times Book Review, October
11, 2013).

To Quatro, there are serious omissions on that list - not least of which is the name Allan Gurganus. Gurganus
is best known for his tome, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,
published in 1989 at 700+ pages. It was a New York Times bestseller for eight
months and was made into a two-part mini series. This book was followed
by another novel, Plays Well With Others, a short story collection White People; and a collection of four novellas, The Practical
Heart.
(The New York Times Book Review, op. cit.)

Local
Souls
, Gurganus' fifth book, rivals some of the best work of Carson
McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty. Like these fine writers
of Southern Gothic, Local Souls explores the loneliness inherent in
social isolation and employs shocking situations such as death by
beheading, incest, and sex with a grieving minor. And this is only in
the first novella! Yet what is unique about Gurganus' writing is the
synchronicity of  humor and pain as well as what Jamie Quatro calls the
"sentence-level pyrotechnics and capacious inventions of plot."

In
the first novella, "Fear Not," the narrator is suspiciously similar to
Gurganus himself.  After having spent seven years writing and
researching his Civil War novel, the narrator is "between books.". While attending his teenage godson's performance in Sweeney Todd, he observes the ambiance of
his surroundings. "This toasty auditorium smells of industrial floor
wax. Student adolescence keeps walls infused with a sebaceous sweetness
akin to curry." (p. 15)

Although the crowd is comprised
of "the same dutiful adults" who appear year after year, the narrator
is struck by a glamorous couple who take their seats next to him. His
best friend, Jenna, now seated, writes him a telling note: NOTICE PAIR.
SAVE HUNCHES. STORY AFTER. GOOD.

What follows is a
story that is as heartfelt as it is shocking - a story that pushes all
boundaries, and yet, never loses compassion for the characters
involved.

The next novella, "Saints Have Mothers," has
the reader questioning just who is the "saint." In it, we are
introduced to our first-person narrator, Jean Mulray - a woman who has
forsaken becoming a poet to fully devoting her energies to her family.
The result: her husband leaves her for another woman and her "saintly"
daughter becomes increasingly insufferable. Gurganus paints a portrait
of Caitlin Mulray as a self-righteous philanthopist more concerned with children in Africa than the well-being of her mother. Ultimately, there is a shocking turn of
events that this reviewer does not wish to reveal.

But the piece de resistance
is the final novella, "Decoy."  Like the other novellas in the
collection, the story takes place in Falls, North Carolina. Marion Roper
has been designated "Doc" since his boyhood. He has always been the
shining star, the person most likely to succeed.  After medical school,
he returns to Falls to care for its denizens.  Among them is Bill Mabry.
Suffering from a disorder that affects his heart, Dr. Roper promises
to keep Mabry alive for as long as he can.  Mabry has a first appointment
with Doc every Monday - an appointment that cements his love and
admiration for the doctor.  But the love is one-sided; Marion Roper is a
god in the town, and gods are unknowable.

When Roper
retires at age 70, he creates another career for himself--that of an
artist.  He becomes renown as a carver of duck decoys and his creations
become collectors' items. Bill longs to own one of these decoys, and in
an act of hubris and callousness, Doc refuses to sell to his longtime
patient.

But what happens in Gurganus' world when
objects take on more value than humans? When latent homosexual yearnings
go unrecognized and feared?  What happens to the Falls residents,
including  Marion Roper, when a flood of biblical proportions levels the
town and destroys his prize possessions? As Mabry observes:

You reach an age when you open your morning
newspapers not to Sports, the Funnies, but Obits. At our age, Jan and I
knew dozens who had "preceded us," as morticians must say.  Such
acquaintances become your own silent majority of friends. But it wasn't
that. That in itself is strangely not so tough on people of our given
vintage. It's not the lost; it the lingerers that slay you. You don't
usually have to see the deceased up and out
walking. (p. 323)

"Decoy" is a
spell-binding novella that explores the limits of friendship and the
loneliness engendered by being "different." It looks at class, male
friendship, loss, and ultimately, the indignities and isolation of old
age.

Taken as a whole, Local Souls is a tour de force that is impossible to put down.

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