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BOOK REVIEW: Gurganus returns to North Carolina

- - Friday, February 7, 2014

LOCAL SOULS
By Allan Gurganus
Liveright, $25.95, 433 pages

Nine well-received books — two novels, three books of novellas and four collections — have earned Allan Gurganus a high place in the pantheon of contemporary American fiction. Twenty-five years after his debut novel, "Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All" (eight months on The New York Times best-seller list), he regularly receives plaudits from such noteworthy peers as John Irving, Amy Patchett and T.C. Boyle. "Local Souls," his latest book, indicates that both the position and the praise are merited.

Once again, the scene is Falls, N.C., the fictional town Mr. Gurganus has peopled in the past. As he did in "The Practical Heart," he has chosen to tell his story by way of novellas; in this case, three, as opposed to four in the earlier book. The novellas are "Fear Not," "Saints Have Mothers" and "Decoy." The reader is free to consider them as either very long short stories or very short novels.

While they share the same fictional geography and cast of characters, each work has a different narrator and point of view. In each of these truncated sagas, there's a tragedy. How all involved, but especially the main characters, come to grips with these emotional earthquakes — or don't — is what makes the journeys into their heads and hearts so painfully human.

"Fear Not" features a young woman of uncommon poise and promise until life yanks the red carpet out from under her without warning. The event that triggers the change is horribly gruesome, but it's the way she reacts that dooms her to a life of almost disabling dread until she finally gets an almost miraculous break.

In "Saints Have Mothers," we meet two women, a mother barely able to hold herself and her family together after her husband trades her in for a newer, shinier model, and a daughter so near-perfect that one almost wishes her ill. Then ill comes her way, or appears to, and the familial landscape turns topsy-turvy.

In "Decoy," the third and final novella, it's the physical landscape that turns topsy-turvy when Mother Nature acts up. The main focus is on the beloved town doctor, who up to that point had been enjoying a retirement as special and admirable as his years of practice. What makes this tale the best of the three is that we observe "Doc Roper" through the eyes of a neighbor-narrator whose own standing and reputation in Falls is very different from that of the to-the-manor-born physician. In the neighbor, Mr. Gurganus, who loves Henry James, has given the reader a prime example of an untrustworthy narrator. Reading Mr. Gurganus is not for the faint of heart. In his tales, the words pile up on the page like kernels from an electric popcorn popper. For the most part, they're equally enjoyable, but in his haste to satirize, he can keep remaking the same point.

In this book, too many of the author's creations seem to have been set up so they could be knocked down. Of one nouveau riche newcomer to Falls, he writes, "He had the absolute standards of the absolutely powerless. But how he enjoyed them." He also likes to have his characters take a peek into their own future, which is OK the first time but less so the second.

Nevertheless, Mr. Gurganus deserves his due. His history — both personal and professional — is the stuff from which fiction is made. A North Carolinian by birth and later by preference, who loved reading as much as writing, in 1985 graduated from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where he took classes from John Cheever, John Irving and Stanley Elkin.

When asked about the criticism that in "Local Souls" he spends too much time on sex, Mr. Gurganus quickly replied, "I'd say sexual thoughts or deeds take up 3 [percent] to 6 percent of my characters' waking-hour thoughts. Is that excessive? Be honest. Sex is Topic A. It has, after all, driven life forward by creating generation after generation, right? My characters are named Susan, Jean and Bill. All are suburban parents driving rusting Volvo station wagons. They are busy and effective people in trouble. If they do give even 6 percent of their energy to hopes of improbable erotic release, that's most of what they get sexually."

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.