The name Allan Gurganus, author of the famous but now long-in-the-tooth “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” is virtually synonymous with Southern lit, that tetchy genre that nestles in what’s safe and comfortable while exposing a sometimes raw and ugly truth.
The Hillsborough resident, best known for his 1989 chronicle of the feisty 99-year-old woman who captured readers’ hearts, is back with his first book in more than 10 years. “Local Souls” is a trio of novellas tied together by the shared locale of Falls, N.C., a fictional burg near Rocky Mount on the banks of the Lithium River (and let us not forget that the chemical element lithium is highly flammable).
Falls is a fairly typical small Southern town, but Gurganus steps away from the sipping-sweet-tea-on-the-veranda trope in the first novella, “Fear Not.” The story’s narrator is an outsider, a somewhat reclusive writer (natch) who has stepped into the scene to support his godson, his friend Jemma’s son, by watching him in a high school theater performance of “Sweeney Todd.” As one of the book’s characters says at the outset, “And such a wholesome moral! One straight-razor trimming London of all that’s sick, I mean ...”
That expression of London depravity through Southern sarcasm sets the tone.
The curious writer becomes captivated by a couple seated nearby at the production, particularly their Dresden doll-like perfection, which causes them to stand out from the usual tableau of proud parents.
Gurganus rewinds the story back many years to the death of a well-liked local banker and the effect on his picture-perfect wife and daughter. The tale is grandiose in a Greek-tragedy kind of way. He deliberately preserves the major characters’ blandness – until the story toes the precipice between tragedy and shock value.
The second story, “Saints Have Mothers,” zeroes in on a woman whose teenage daughter is Falls’ golden girl, known for her beauty, intelligence and generosity. The mother’s feelings toward the teen mix pride with hatred – and something yet more sinister. The result is both horrifying and hilarious.
The faded protagonist clings to her accomplishments, including a high IQ (which creeps up each time she boasts about it) and the publication of a poem in Atlantic Monthly when she was but a carefree coed, long before becoming the mother of the titular “saint.”
This mom is jealous and needy – and thus a delightful pawn in the story of a virtuous daughter who goes missing while doing humanitarian work in Africa. “Saints Have Mothers” is decidedly more barbed – and funnier – than “Fear Not.”
The final story, “Decoy,” is longer and more involved than the first two. Rather than centering on the anatomy of fractured families and frayed mental health, it explores more deeply the DNA of the town itself, referring to Falls residents as “the Fallen.”
Issues of age, race and class get full treatment through the eyes of the protagonist, Bill, who landed in town by sheer luck after a rich local benefactor enabled his sickly, uneducated father to buy a small cottage with a fancy address. But what seems perfect on the surface bubbles with deceit and bitterness underneath.
The son makes good – returning to town after college to marry a nice local girl – but he, too, is sickly, and like his father never really achieves full acceptance. Bill’s story, which stretches from childhood to old age, is intertwined with that of Doc, the town’s beloved general practitioner.
Bill and Doc are neighbors and, in Bill’s estimation, friends, as well. But Doc’s civic identity takes an abrupt turn when he retires, befuddling Bill and pretty much the entire town.
The narrative moves back and forth in time, gradually stitching together a picture of a town defined by its scandals and its traditions. No sweet tea on the veranda here, either – more like a calamitous flood yielding grim, tragic truths about both major characters.
Throughout all these stories, the characters’ doubts about themselves and their world take them on a meandering route through life that, in the Southern way, emulates politeness but masks deeper anxieties and raises questions about their place as individuals and as parts of a culture that teeters on a fault line perpetually threatening to crack wide open.
Michelle Moriarity Witt is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.