Since first coming to our attention in 1989 with the heartbreaking and richly conceived Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Allan Gurganus has tantalized us with a choice handful of works. Today, after a 12-year absence, Liveright: Norton is releasing his Local Souls, a collection of three novellas each containing the grandeur and energy of that first novel in beautifully telescoped form. A woman who lost both her father and her innocence as a young teenager finally finds herself; a mother contends with the ruthlessly magnificent daughter she’s helped create; a man can’t quite overcome his country roots as he tries for acceptance, particularly by the revered doctor he’s chosen as his best friend. All are affecting stories delivering universal life lessons within the same small-town setting—the imaginary Falls, NC, where Confederate Widow was also set. And all deliver a powerful understanding of what good writing can do.
“Now more than ever we need fiction,” proposed Gurganus during a breakfast interview a few weeks before the publication of Local Souls. He was responding to a question about Caitlin, the self-satisfied and scarily accomplished do-gooder at the heart of “Saints Have Mothers,” who suggests that novels may no longer be valid. As Gurganus points out, the adolescent Caitlin is still validating herself by accumulating experience and has much to learn, failing to see that a pointed and poignant story like “Saints Have Mothers” can clarify life’s messiness and ask the big questions with fresh energy. As Gurganus confirms, “Fiction is an editorial process that weeds out extraneous information and the overload of sensation we live with and narrows it down to what is important ethically and emotionally in our lives.”
Asking “What If?”
For Gurganus, fiction remains vital because it constantly asks “what if,” creating scenarios that help us consider what’s right, what’s not, and how we should live. What if you were compelled to give up a child but had an unprecedented chance to reestablish connection, as Susan does in “Fear Not?” What if, like Bill in “Decoy,” you define yourself by a relationship with someone who stands serenely above? All fiction asks such questions; the best fiction asks them without presumption or hectoring. Concludes Gurganus, “We read not just for entertainment but ethical identification, stepping into other lives to see how close those lives are to ours.”
Key here is the phrase ethical identification. In good storytelling like Gurganus’s, we aren’t told what to think but come to an understanding of the pertinent issues through the characters. That requires individuals with “open destinies,” as Gurganus puts it, who evolve with the narrative as they make thorny and often wrongheaded choices that ultimately lead to some kind of illumination—and more engrossing reading, of course. Early on, Susan observes that her luck has turned to fate, but she rises above it, rejecting social stricture to embrace the happiest life of the lead characters here. Caitlin’s mother, Jean, has pressed upon her daughter “what she wanted for herself and has created Dr. Frankenstein’s monster,” observes Gurganus. “She can only come into her own when that model is removed.” We’re not sure what will happen to Jean, but as she heads to a writer’s conference to reengage with poetry, she seems ready to free herself from a self-made trap.
Bill, whose father eagerly moved to Falls from the country, remains uncomfortable, even defensive, among his fellow citizens and can’t take advantage of what life has to offer. “Here’s a guy who’s free to do anything but has not yet chosen, who can’t admit to himself what he most wants. He’s got the Hamlet disease,” says Gurganus. Trying to maintain his friendship with Doc Roper, almost as if he were emulating some fantasy of boyhood intimacy, Bill is stuck until a final, blinding moment of revelation. (“Better to have a death-bed conversion and transcendence than none as all,” declares Gurganus.) In the meantime, Bill can be exasperating. But as Gurganus says, “Madame Bovary has so much to teach us even as we disapprove.”
The Consolation of Community
If character matters, so does community—“one of the great consolations of being alive,” says Gurganus, “what we have instead of God.” Gurganus, who likes to “get down to eye level to picture the world, as with model trains,” probes community on an intimate scale by setting his work in the small-town South he calls home. “One of the attractions of living in a small town is that everything you do and say is observed,” he says, quickly adding “the attraction and the horror.” Surely, such keen attention can be unsettling, even crippling; Susan would not have achieved what she did had she heeded others. But it can also reassure.
In small towns especially, people are crucially and comfortingly defined by how they’re known—and quite simply by being known. Others furnish self-image; Jean sees herself and is seen by neighbors as the mother of a little saint, while Susan finally recognizes her own beauty in her son’s face. Such connectedness appeals to Gurganus, who defies the French existentialists by proclaiming, “Paradise is other people, and when it’s working there is nothing like it.” In small paradises, life’s crises appear in high relief, and some individuals can truly loom large, inspiring both hero worship and hero envy. The result, argues Gurganus, is as grand as Greek tragedy and just as revealing, if in different ways. “Just by placing heightened dramas in small settings can give an extraordinary extra charge,” he concludes.
What Writing Is All About
Intriguingly, as it offers up good stories, Local Souls defines the very act of writing. Encountering a mysterious couple at a school play, the author narrator of “Fear Not” declares, “My exhausted narrative capacity, if not yet stirred, twitches” and later that “the story sort of found us.” Is a large part of writing being receptive to the stories out there? “Having all five senses operational for as many hours a day as you can bear is a tremendous asset,” concurs Gurganus, who further recommends eavesdropping, reading three newspapers daily (“writing means being a fascinated slave to current events”), and grappling with the highs and lows of contemporary culture. “It all funnels down to the work, the honey that is a byproduct of all these forces.”
Many stories out there are just begging to be told, and writers need to pay attention. “Literature’s function is the function of memory,” says Gurganus, “and there’s a kind of superstructure to writing that comes from reality.” But obviously the writing process doesn’t stop there. “After documenting, you must imagine inward,” says the narrator of “Fear Not,” and not for nothing does Caitlin lovingly quote the immortal Wallace Stevens lines, “Things as they are/ are changed upon the blue guitar.” For Gurganus, the balance between reality and imagination in the transformative act of writing is a perpetual tightrope walk, with lightness the operative word and the desired outcome. “When it’s really going well, you feel that your desk chair is under Mary Poppins control,” he concludes.
Craft for Content’s Sake
Like most writers, Gurganus finds writing to be mostly rewriting: “There’s that great, invigorated swing in the first draft, writing as fast as you can go, like creating a base coat that doesn’t matter. It’s the second or third of 40th draft that is the ivory surface.” Having focused some on virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake in his earlier works, Gurganus now avoids calling attention to his polished output so as not to “pull readers away from inner sanctum of character”; language must serve meaning. He allows himself multiple-choice images until a work’s final draft and then picks one; he tries not to make a metaphor or simile “unless it’s never been read before and is completely germane.” What results in Local Souls is a natural, conversational narrative periodically infused with a startling phrase that illuminates everything. “Lady likeness dropped behind wet leather curtains of caterwauling,” says Gurganus of Susan’s unexpectedly raucous laugh, and of her father, “At eighteen he looked almost disabled by handsomeness.”
The three novellas in Local Souls provide full-scale entertainment, with each offering the depth and complexity of a longer work in a compressed space. Gurganus claims that the form is “divinely suited for the way we live now. Most people read in a single sitting, and the novella provides a complete experience for the speeded-up world.” This form works by eliminating secondary characters and hence secondary complications, creating a single-minded drive and intensity that Gurganus finds fascinating. “The novella can offer a novel’s worth of entertainment, and I want to deliver that,” says Gurganus. And he does.