With this collection of three loosely connected novellas, Allan Gurganus returns once again to Falls, N.C., that piece of fictive land made timeless by his celebrated first novel, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.’’ The beloved author whose literary bona fides rank him among the most revered writers of the last 50 years, Gurganus has an eye for gesture large and small, an ear for voice at once razor-sharp and tender, and a way with finding the absolutely precise moment of dramatic tension.
The man can write, and write well. But with “Local Souls,’’ his talents seem turned to a steroidal pitch, as though Gurganus was straining to make sure we know he hasn’t lost his Southern touch.
No matter the story, no matter first or third person, no matter the social strata the characters inhabit or abandon, the sentences all sound strangely, frantically alike. Of course this is a matter of Gurganus’s homespun charm at work, but this time it’s so charged with effort that too often the sentences become cryptically twisted, sacrificing sense for sound.
They’re also overly clever, too many times jam-packed with quirky imagery or shorthanded for folksy effect, not to mention employing an eager alliteration: “She’d once shared smooth silences with the boy she married but those had curdled since”; “Was at our annual neighborhood picnic something wonderful finally happened”; “Shouldn’t those of us who’d stayed Falls’ guardians be offered combat pay? . . . We stayed home to avoid danger but it had our home addresses.” The effect is that while the language juggles for us center stage, the drama here — and there’s plenty of it — becomes subservient, eclipsed by the earnest regionalism of it all.
Which is disappointing, because the drama in these three novellas is real, and often moving. “Fear Not” recounts, through the lens of a writer listening to the story being told by a friend, the tale of a teenage girl who witnesses the boating accident that decapitates her father. The gin-drunk bon vivant at the boat’s helm is, in characteristic Southern Gothic fashion, her father’s best friend and her own godfather.
Soon thereafter, as if to double-down on that ante, her father’s killer gets Fear Not (it’s her childhood nickname) pregnant: “Say both of them are quite literally crazed with grief. Say only lust can overtake grief’s cold force with its counterclaim nearly as heavy. Say lust can fill a void with no more qualm than water fills a blasted mine.” Though the story is tremendously poignant — Fear Not spends the rest of her life haunted by thoughts of the child she gave up at birth — it’s impossible to shake the fact of its being small-town hearsay, given to a writer recording this all for his own imaginative benefit. It’s a story told by a third party to the fourth-hand hearer. That’s what’s known, finally, as local gossip.
Likewise, in “Saints Have Mothers,” there’s a familial drama played out that could very well have borne the weight of the story, but which ends up run through a literary bedazzler by the unrelenting narcissistic chatter of its narrator. Jean, a published-once poet whose IQ rises every time she mentions it, has lived her life lovingly and begrudgingly in the shadow of her famously do-gooding daughter, Cait.
But it’s only in her daughter’s ostensible death while helping children in Africa that Jean finds her truest calling, that of Mourner-in-Chief: “Reporters called at once. They already knew her. I somehow talked to them all, even offered Diet Cokes. (I soon learned: journalism and motherhood are two fields jet-fueled by frequent triage caffeine blasts.) Despite everything, I managed to bake my best chocolate layer cake, ever.” If only we could have heard less from Jean, perhaps we might care more about her, though of course that narcissism is part and parcel of the Southern grotesques Gurganus traffics in here.
“Decoy,” the longest and most ambitious of the three novellas, is a portrait not only of the inner-sanctum set of Falls, those folks living in the big houses along the River Lithium, but also the life and death of narrator Bill Mabry, son of Red. Father and son alike suffer from bad hearts, the two of them under the care of the beatific and affably opaque Doc Roper.
Bill and Red, alchemized from flatland farmers to the River Road set via an odd inheritance, find themselves both outside and inside the lives of the rich and fallen. Doc is their only true lifeline, both literal and figurative, to staying alive amidst this crowd. But, and yet again, too often the folksy charm and its obligation to repetition, to meandering, to grammar sometimes as opaque as Doc’s smile, make for a story that seems more happily word-bloated than at fighting weight. Late in the novella, Bill bemoans, “This is the end, come all of a sudden at last. You will be almost as glad for it as I,” and although meant as a narrative tool to disarm the reader, one can only nod along with the sentiment.
This is an interesting book, not for its Southern style but for its human substance, and won’t subtract from Gurganus’s deserved literary reputation. But burdened as it is with what seems an obligation first to its high-pitched drawl, and next to the characters involved, “Local Souls’’ won’t be adding to that reputation either.
Bret Lott teaches at the College of Charleston and is a former editor of The Southern Review.