Allan Gurganus last gifted us with his authorial presence nigh unto a dozen years ago. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was the toast of 1989, followed by 2002’s The Practical Heart, a collection of four novellas. Where’s he been hiding out? In Falls, North Carolina, of course. You won’t find Falls on Google Maps, or in one of those moldy old print ones, but you can get the feel for the place from a map he drew himself (he used to be quite the painter) at the beginning of Local Souls, his new trio of novellas.
If Falls sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the mythological town that served as the stage for Widow. Local Souls is a 21st century commentary on the same earthen plot of land (current population 6,803). “Just to choose six or eight square miles and try to tell the story of that seems to be a gigantic ambition and, in a way, a kind of unifying mission,” says Gurganus, “so that any given book or novella need not stand alone. I see them as a single whole. That’s the goal.” For all those modern conveniences—motorboats, Miatas, the internet and Parade magazine—in some ways Falls hasn’t changed at all. One thing’s for sure: Potential for scandal still runs as high as the River Lithium that courses through town.
In Fear Not, tragedies befall a beautiful banker’s daughter, who finally finds true love in an obvious, if odd, place. Saints Have Mothers portrays Jean Mulray—channeling her frustrated artistry into rearing an exceptional daughter whose worthiness borders on worrisome. And Decoy? Gurganus describes it as an act of “creating a character at the center of the story who’s more talented than anybody else—the town doctor, in this case—who attracts ‘real ducks’ that somehow believe in him, even when they’re about to be shot on his account.” Main duck Bill Mabry is a lifelong heart patient whose feelings of faith, friendship and fraternity evolve for his doctor develop into an obsession bordering on lust.
Despite their peccadillos, Gurganus loves his characters like family. Scratch that: It’s because of their peculiarities. “We all love people who are difficult and challenging. For me those are qualifying characteristics. I love people who have tried to live safe lives, who are thrust into situations where they’re having to make desperate choices, and who find that they have some kind of inner resource, some extra talent that they hadn’t imagined before difficulty arrives,” he says. “I think that’s what fiction is all about.
Mabry, Mulray and golden girl Susan of Fear Not all display non-traditional heroism in overcoming great losses. “I’m fascinated with the idea of a person that one loves immensely disappearing from one’s life, all the changes that are necessary to acclimate yourself to that in an emotional way, and the shock of having that person return,” says Gurganus. The long and short of it is that local souls need mates. “You might say: People who love something too much, live at greater risk. And yet, that’s bound to be the one sane way forward,” he writes in Decoy. In risking themselves for love, the characters’ true colors are exposed—and, at core, they’re quite lovely in the right light. The “same events that overwhelm Greek dramas live on side streets paying taxes in our smallest towns.... Instead of disapproving, someone could decide, where possible, to try and love all this alive,” he writes in Fear Not.
For those fearing that Gurganus will slip into another silence after Local Souls, well…don’t. Two more books are on the way. “A big fat book of stories,” as he puts it, never collected, will combine short fiction having appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and Tin House with stories never before seen. Then he returns to 19th-century Falls for another novel, The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church. “I’m trying to tell as many stories as I can, but I think it’s all one unified story,” he says. That’s life.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.