Allan Gurganus Uses the Sweetest Voice to Tell the Saddest Stories
Allan Gurganus gets an eensy bit agitated if you refer to him as a regional writer. Even though all his books—from his 1989 best-selling debut, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, to today—take place primarily in the South, he rejects the idea that he's a Southern writer.
"I don't wake up in the morning," he said during an interview last week at Elliott Bay Book Company, putting on a sarcastic cotillion drawl, "and think, 'What a beautiful Southern morning,' and eat a beautiful piece of Southern fried ham, and then get a Southern mammy to come in here and wash the dishes."
All the stories in his new collection of novellas, Local Souls, take place in the same fictional town of Falls, North Carolina (population 6,000), but Gurganus doesn't see himself as following in the footsteps of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Donald Harington. (To my surprise, Gurganus has never even read Harington, though he does dearly love Faulkner's Light in August, saying, "I think he was 35 when he wrote that, which makes me quite cross.")
Instead, he defines himself as a writer taking advantage of the fertile ground of his childhood, which happened to take place in racially charged, born-again communities in North Carolina. "I think of myself as someone who's born in a region and whose fiction has international implications. Not just local color." He slyly added, "The fact that I'm reading in Seattle, Washington, a sophisticated city, indicates that." Gurganus knows how to lay on the charm; when I asked if he agrees with my description of his writing style as "joyful," he cooed, "I always want to have a good time, on and off the page. I'm having a good time with you, Paul, right now. I'm not thinking of anyone but Paul right now."
Gurganus's narrators are almost always likewise polite, but there's a cruelty simmering underneath. The second story in Local Souls, "Saints Have Mothers," is narrated by a newly divorced mother whose kindhearted daughter dies on a charitable school trip to southern Africa. She admits, in an aside to the reader, just before she calls her reviled ex-husband to give him the terrible news that his daughter has died: "I would lie to you if I told you I did not actually somewhat savor this." It's not that she's happy that her daughter's dead, of course, but the idea of ruining her ex-husband's new life is too exciting to let the moment pass unmentioned.
The jovial voice in Gurganus's fiction is often in service of sharing some sort of bad news. The three stories in Local Souls are equal parts feathers and sandpaper. The first novella tells the tragic story of a young girl nicknamed "Fear Not" whose father is decapitated in a boating accident. The narrator relays the story thirdhand, often with some juicy details about the people involved that he scraped off Google tossed in, and the distance of scandal and rumor dulls some of the grisly details. The third story, "Decoy," lays out the last days of the most beloved doctor in all of Falls. Even the pleasures of retirement after a long career as a general practitioner are accompanied by itchiness: "Doc acted unsentimental. Every grocery aisle held damp-eyed wheezy well-wishers trying not to show him their new rash." It's obviously a funny line, but it's also intensely illustrative of the horrors of a small-town doctor: He knows all the nasty secrets lurking just underneath those sensible cotton underpants.
Gurganus comes by this bittersweet tone honestly. "I was a Vietnam veteran who did not get killed," he explained. "I was a gay man who lived in Manhattan before and during the arrival of AIDS. I lost a lot of my friends and my boyfriends. And I made it through unscathed, physically at least."
These stories are the work of a master. Gurganus learned writing from John Cheever, Grace Paley, and the exceptionally underrated Stanley Elkin. "I'm very interested in the genealogy of art, in being part of a tradition," he said. He lays out his "pedigree" at the beginning of every writing class he teaches; students of his include novelists Ann Patchett and Donald Antrim, who was recently awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Award. Though closer to 70 than to 60, Gurganus is on the cusp of a period of great productivity. Besides Local Souls, he's putting the finishing touches on a collection of 20 short stories and a big, ambitious novel titled The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church, in which he hopes to look at America through one of our most conservative institutions. Gurganus seems to have empathy for the "confusion" felt by the Baptists in the book. "They don't really understand when a strong feeling blooms in the lower body whether that feeling is going to go up to Paradise or down to the genitals." Most Gurganus characters eventually realize that sometimes heaven and hell are the same thing wrapped up in varying levels of politeness.