Four novellas, each in its own way elegiac and tributary, from the accomplished North Carolinian author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and Plays Well with Others (1997).
The slightest and most conventional, “He’s One, Too,” picks up the gay themes prominent in several of Gurganus’s earlier stories: it’s a remembrance of the scandal created by a “beloved local church and business leader” entrapped and arrested on a morals charge—a charge by the boy (now middle-aged) who had loved the older man hopelessly, and found mirrored in the former’s “offenses” his own emergent homosexuality. “The Practical Heart” (winner of a National Magazine Award) recounts both the early years of its narrator’s Scottish great-aunt, a resourceful spinster whose reduced fortunes stimulated her fascination with portrait painter John Singer Sargent, and his own relationship with her in her old age, which he has lovingly captured and mythologized. All four stories are set in, or hearken back to, the sleepy hamlet of Falls, North Carolina—portrayed perhaps most affectionately in “Preservation News,” a memoir of flamboyant Tad Worth, after his death of AIDS: a “preservationist” who loved and lobbied to save beautiful old houses, sashayed around Falls with Capote-esque gusto, and left a legacy of compassionate engagement with his world that’s crystallized in the story’s memorable central set piece—a delicately haunting biracial ghost story. Even better is “Saint Monster,” in which a 50ish classics professor recalls his puzzled, loving relationship with his father and namesake (“the ugliest white man alive in Falls”), a long-suffering traveling salesman repeatedly cuckolded (now there’s a switch) by his infantile wife, and the bearer of a compromising secret from which he stoically shields his son. This is a triumph of subtle, slowly building characterization, and more: a compact epic of deeply entangled and enigmatic parental, marital, and filial devotion and duplicity. Unforgettable stuff.
One of contemporary fiction’s most ebullient and versatile stylists strikes again—straight to the heart.