- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

By Allan Gurganus
Knopf, $25, 322 pages

Allan Gurganus has a uniquely Southern way of drawing out a story. At some 700 pages, his much-acclaimed "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" was noted for both its flowing style as well as its length. It's somewhat surprising that his latest work, "The Practical Heart," consists of four short offerings.
While Mr. Gurganus promises "four novellas" in his subtitle, he really offers only one. In the other three he serves up a family portrait of a spinster aunt, a first-person narrative about "coming out" and a piece of writing that can only be described as a fictional newsletter from a fiction historical society. The fourth, and most rewarding "novella" takes us to a familiar Gurganus Southern town where a young boy and his father race about the countryside, delivering bibles in adulterous motels while his mother commits serial adultery back at the homestead.
Like a slow and lazy river, Mr. Gurganus' writing is never rushed by a narrow passage or the cataracts of plot. Events plod on and characters are masterfully developed: At the ending, the reader feels both delivered and delirious. Two of his four stories in "The Practical Heart" show Mr. Gurganus at his best typecast Southern characters in typecast Southern towns. As the narrator, he is both familiar and distant. He is there one moment and gone the next; he menaces and he flirts.
But Mr. Gurganus is a tireless and at times, tiresome flirter. Indeed, one of his stories (the weakest of the litter) seems to be a last ditch effort and a rather sad and self-absorbed one to track down a boyhood idol. In other ways, Mr. Gurganus dances and flirts with cliches, sometimes taking them home. That he has a tendency to stumble towards the cliche when his brilliant typecasts become mere trite replications shouldn't distract us from his remarkable achievements elsewhere.
One such achievement is his first offering, "The Practical Heart." In the opening chapter, the narrator tells the story of how his great aunt Muriel once sat for John Singer Sargent. Of noble Scottish birth, Muriel redeems her life of a mere Chicago piano teacher by having her inner and artistic beauty captured by the famed artist. In doing so, she leaves future generations a different legacy than the ancestral home that her father was forced to sell. Now her great nephew can casually drop "Oh, did I mention that John Singer Sargent painted my great-aunt? No?"
But this entire story, or at least the second half of it, is all a fabrication. In the next chapter, the narrator reveals the fraud and tells the "true" story of his eccentric perhaps lesbian great aunt. Yes, dear aunty played the piano for John Ruskin but she spent her life as an executive assistant and spent her money on museum memberships and art supplies for her nephew. So the reader is in a bit of pickle. Which version are we to believe?
Upon rereading, the clues of the deception crop up in every page. Early on, it is declared that: "History is not just lived; it's also wished, isn't it? Maybe Art is the history most livingly wished." Mr. Gurganus keeps reciting Ruskin's incantation that, "the great thing a human soul ever does in this world is to SEE something, and tell what it SAW in a plain way."
Ruskin and Sargent aside, Mr. Gurganus has had us. We're left feeling cheated, yet we still sort of like it.
Even so, our guard is up. As we wade into the next section (the newsletter) we do so with our disbelief on high alert. Then comes the third story: a reprint that first appeared in the literary journal, Granta, in a 1996 issue on childhood. Perhaps because of this we suspect that it's legitimately autobiographical. But since Mr. Gurganus has burned us once we can't be too certain.
In "He's One, Too," the narrator deals with his own sexuality by recounting how his hometown banished one of its prominent members Dad's golfing buddy! after he was arrested in the men's room of a Raleigh department store. The handsome Dan R was a model citizen in a sleepy Southern town: married with children and active in charity. Then he was entrapped by a peeping detective and his 15-year-old son. Predictably, society turns on him.
Ensnared in his own emotional dilemma, our young narrator can't process the justice of it all. He's confused and hurt. After all, Dan was always so nice to him. How could his hero be treated so harshly? The question Mr. Gurganus asks rather obviously is how does society deal with homosexuality?
This is no simple task. Mr. Gurganus does not make it any easier by the self-involvement of his heavy autobiographical hand. Consider: "Showing off my fly-casting, I snagged his furry forearm. Even bleeding, the guy never blamed me. He joked: I should think of him as my 'big one,' the lead 'rainbow' in a long, good lifetime's catch. I did." Are we to believe that older gay men initiate seven-year-olds with words like "big one" and "rainbow?" Does Mr. Gurganus resort to cliche in an attempt explain his own sexuality? Or is he simple poking fun at the way society handles it?
In the last story, our narrator again recounts his first sexual experience. But this time, the effect is dazzling and ultimately, morally dubious. After he and his father have finished their Sunday Bible delivery route, the boy of eight walks in on his mother and her lover. In reliving the story the narrator hopes to exorcise it, knowing that he never can. His questions beget more questions and he is trapped in a swirling spiral of guilt and divided loyalty: "I would doom my mother to the public role of Whore: I would fox my father out his own life." Not even his loving father can prepare him for the discoveries he will make on the way. Nor is the reader prepared for the revelations that trickle out of our narrator.
In "Saint Monster," Mr. Gurganus masterfully straddles two voices that of an awakened and confused boy and that of a middle-aged man trying to explain "it" to him. In a sense, the story is dialogue between the two selves: "Recalling 1954, I forget the concept of tenure or divorce. I feel far too young to have a kid myself. Much less adolescent ones with figures, interracial boyfriends, politics already."
Like the child shocked by his mother's infidelity, the older narrator still can't decide whom to blame and whom to love. More than anything, he appears to love reliving and rehashing the past. Mr. Gurganus seems to have absorbed the maxim of his Southern literary forebear, William Faulkner, when he said: "The past isn't over and done with. It's not even past."
Mr. Gurganus certainly is comfortable writing in the first person and writing about the past. It's only when that first-person voice becomes too assertive and too obsessive too comfortable that he drowns in his own writing. In two of his stories here he avoids doing so. For those efforts, "The Practical Heart" is well worth it.

Hans Nichols is a reporter for Insight magazine.

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