In his new (late-2013) collection of three novellas, all based in the fictional town of Falls, North Carolina (site also of Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), catastrophic things happen in all three and any triumphs are muted, that is, matters of interpretation. The syntax is not serpentine like Faulkner’s, but is very disjunctive, with many sentence fragments in the streams of consciousnesses. And though the tales are poignant, each of them contains hilarious observations and/or remarks. Both in terms of crafting of sentences and in terms of humor, Gurganus (born in 1947) is considerably wilder than his friend, Elizabeth Spencer (born in 1921), who has been in North Carolina for decades and dedicated her new (2014) collection, Starting Over, to him. (He dedicated the novella within Local Souls that has a female narrator, “Saints Have Mothers” to her. Both books are published by Liveright, an imprint relaunched in 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company.)
Before turning to the individual novellas, I should note that these newer stories are in mostly chronological order, though the third (and longest) one tells an additional story (of the narrator’s father coming to town and claiming a place in it) in flashbacks that are not entirely chronological.
I venture to guess that Mr. Faulkner would have liked the first one, “Fear Not,” the most. It is the shortest and, arguably, the most convoluted, at least in that most of it is a flashback told to a narrator who closely resembles Gurganus. (There is some strange word ordering (and punctuation), too, as in “At her school, there studied a shy lanky boy similarly fated to succeed.”*
The narrator attends a high school production (!) of “Sweeney Todd” in which his godson has a part. After it, the boy’s mother tells him the very melodramatic story of the radiant couple who sat beside them. I think Faulkner would have approved of the accidental decapitation and its sexual fallout. “Fear Not” is the unwelcome nickname since a Christmas pageant during her adolescence of the prime victim.
The second (and longer) “Saints Have Mothers” is told by Jean, the mother of a prodigy of charity (etc.), Cait[lin] who over Jean’s strenuous objections, goes off to sub-Saharan Africa as a volunteer teacher following her junior year in Falls High School. Jean has two rambunctious boys (and their friends) left at home, a home deserted by her husband, who took up with a younger woman and moved to California. She is mordantly self-deprecating about her failure to do anything with a high IQ and guiltily resentful of her too-perfect, saintly daughter. Caitlin had a penchant for giving away things that did not belong to her, including all of her mother’s shoes. Being a mother of someone everyone else considers a saint or an angel has many trials, both before and after martyrdom of the saint.
There is no waterfall in the very flat Falls, NC, but there are aquatic disasters in all three novellas. In the third (and longest), “Decoy,” the narrator is an insurance salesman with a hereditary heart malady, Bill Mabry Jr., and his physician and neighbor just across the Lithium (!) River, Dr. Marion Roper. Both returned to Falls after schooling elsewhere and each has two children who have moved away. Though they are both returned natives, the Ropers (particularly his stalwart wife Marge) are securely elite, whereas Bill Sr. clawed his way from the red-dirt countryside onto River Road, comically inheriting a hereditary founders’ membership in the country club from an eccentric patron whose crumbling mantion Bill Sr. restored.
Dr. Roper strove to keep both Bills alive despite their heart conditions, succeeding with the second one at least until retiring from doctoring at the age of 70 (Bill Jr. was ten years younger). The much-loved and hyper-competent “Doc” takes up carving and painting duck decoys and succeeds in what becomes a second career with some of the skills and discernment that were central to his success in his first one.
Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famed saying that there are no second acts in American lives, “Doc” Roper has a second act that brings him adulation from far and wide, and alienates Bill, hard as Bill tries not to resent the man who has prolonged his life decades by close attention (and weekly monitorings:6:45 AM Mondays). I’ll just say that there is another watery grave in “Decoy,” and that the third act is sad and an occasion for unworthy schadenfreude.
I thought that “Decoy” was too long, even for containing the stories of three men (and, glancingly, a pair of golden boys younger than Bill’s children) and having much to say about small-town life (busybody surveillance and backstabbing beneath a façade of genteel manners). I thought that ) “Saints Have Mothers” was hilarious and with its portrayal of the damages inflicted by divorce and by social expectations, a very suitable gift to Ms. Spencer. It takes a while for “Fear Not” to get going, but I don’t think anyone could fault it for lacking in grotesqueries (though the prose is not “Southern Gothic,” the plot is!). I have qualms about recommending “Decoy,” but none about recommending “Saints Have Mothers” and only minor ones about recommending “Fear Not.” I should also mention that I liked the unobtrusive cross-references between stories and the map inside the book covers.
And though the location is Southern if not as Deep South as Faulkner’s (or, generally, Spencer’s) , I think that the American Nobel Prize for Literature writer whom Gurganus brings to mind more in Local Souls is my home-state’s Sinclair Lewis (Babbit and Dodsworth more than Main Street or Elmer Gantry), albeit with high-speed Internet connections and cellphones, unknown to both Faulkner and Lewis.
* But in reference to the same boy, I like “He might have longed to be less well-rounded, but did not know which evolving skill to neglect first.” Or “What big cities might call ‘sadism,’ little towns name ‘fun.'” And “You can be so afraid for somebody, you grow half-scared of them.”
(Also see my review of Gurganus’s previous collection of novellas, The Practical Heart here.)