The Bible offers a warning or two about worshipping false idols; Allan Gurganus’s recent novella, Decoy, gives readers a shelf-full of Biblical exegesis regarding the human complications of modern-day idolatry. If the object of worship is one’s hand-picked best friend (who might not know that yet), stand by for comedy and Old Testament calamities.
As Gurganus suggests, “We’re often most confused by the very person we love and desire most. We are snowblind.”
Decoy (which was previously published in Local Souls but so popular Gurganus’ publisher is publishing it as a stand-alone novella) takes place in the author’s legendary small town of Falls, North Carolina, first seen in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a community, the narrator tell us, that “tend[s] to worship doctors and diagnose preachers.” Decoy’s structure and themesecho Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych or Shakespeare’s King Lear—models, Gurganus admits, that came to mind while writing it. He also cites The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James, whose protagonist, Gurganus explains, “devotes his life to waiting for his true life to begin.” Decoy’s narrator, Bill Mabry, has recently retired. So has the other married husband-father who most absorbs Mabry’s attention and affection, Doc Roper. Gurganus hints that, like this tale, King Lear’s “is the tragedy of retiring too early.” What do men of action and wealth do post-career? “Where,” Gurganus wonders, “do their energies turn? Often to over-asking. A last lunge at a final impossible challenge.” Decoy explores such new Boomer pathways.
Without even trying, Roper, a true American idol for Falls’ citizens, ropes the respect and fascination of insurance-broker Mabry. Because of Mabry’s heart condition, he has lived under the constant blessed care of Yale-educated Roper. Then “Doc” retires from medical practice, preferring to carve prize-winning decoy ducks. His withdrawal sends Mabry (and most of Falls’ 6,803 souls) into identity crises and hypochondria.
Mabry’s narrative voice soothes us, alternately comical and melancholy. He is a country boy brought to town by “Red,” his hapless, socially ambitious father. The novella, with an assurance of tenderness and deep understanding of class anxieties, layers generations of lore. Gurganus is fascinated by those same-sex friendships that often outlast marriages. “If forced to choose one person for your desert island, many folks would finally prefer their lifelong best friend over the latest spouse,” Gurganus says. “I’m fascinated with romantic ties between straight people. While never enacted sexually, these can form the most basic fact of life.”
Mabry feels like a perpetual outsider among Falls’ golfing upper middle class. Roper, his next-door neighbor, is both a decoy emblem of the idealized family man and he’s a medicine man keeping Mabry alive. Once Roper retreats into the artistry of carving, the town’s yearning for him escalates like Mabry’s own. Gurganus sees Falls whole (it’s “a single jeopardized organism,” as he puts it). Mabry’s story draws in the reader, lured by Falls’ entwined connections and refractions: all the life-like renderings of ordinary envies and jealousies, the accomplishments of children and satisfactions of friendship and spouses, asides about marriages strong and busted, about seductions and prodigal returns. As Roper’s carvings make him a national figure, we are privy to growing local jealousies. Then overnight, disaster arrives—a Biblical, toxic flood. Idols topple; decoys float away.
In the loss of his admirable home, Mabry starts finally to discover himself. The hugs from his acquaintances affirm (“I’d been recognized by neighbors with embraces I could feel were truly meant”). The fate of an idealized Roper, deprived of his studio and carvings, becomes Decoy’s most wrenching spectacle. His image recalls King Lear left storm-swept on the heath.
Post-flood, Mabry worships others less, even imagines himself (in an aside reminiscent of Yogi Berra) at least a worthy teller: “Hell, if I could have ever been a great artist, I bet I could’ve been a great artist.”
Gurganus suggests that all great novelists are historians of their time. “We want,” he says, “the power to tell the tale of our age in some way that might prove comprehensible both to the people of the past and to those waiting ahead in the future. I like to hope I’m hollering warning news back to citizens of the nineteenth century!” It’s this ability to make sense of the present despite time’s inevitable changes that elevates Decoy—and much of Gurganus’ fiction. Falls’ flood washes Roper’s costly New York-recognized duck decoys from the studio. Seeking them, their creator stages a Lear-like quest across the modern American heath of strip mall parking lots, over grotesque culverts full of rusted shopping carts. The doctor becomes a modern Ahab, but one in search of his own lost wild flock. And Bill Mabry feels, despite everything, the need to watch over his handpicked idol, to remain Roper’s attentive best friend, an unwanted jester-helper.
This ongoing emotional draw—of friendship, of blunted erotic love—leads to a moving rapprochement between the two. It’s a moment on a roadside too near cars driven fast by a flood of strangers new to Falls. In a last conversation, the men occupy both present-tense and echoes of talks from long ago, ones Mabry cherishes—man to man, friend to friend. It’s human time, after all. And that may be Gurganus’ greatest gift: as a chronicler of the mortal condition, of the human heart beating away, both a gift and a mystery—his lifeline to the reader.
J. W. Bonner teaches in the Humanities Department at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.