Local Souls: Three Superb New Novellas from Allan Gurganus

Posted on October 16, 2013
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Allan Gurganus’s new book, Local Souls, is a collection of three novellas.  They share a common location–the fictional town of Falls, North Carolina–and also a common theme:  survival.  They are rendered in a style that is at once lyrical and hyper-realistic.  And they are also frequently funny.  It’s quite an accomplishment:  this marriage of high quality literature and laugh-out loud humor.  But the humor here is never forced.  It arises organically from the characters’ responses to their, at times, surprising situations.  For if there is one single factor that makes these three novellas great, it is the quality of the characterizations.

“Saints Have Mothers” is told in the first person–the mother of a teenaged girl who is so altruistic that she volunteers to help the needy in Africa.  And then comes the dreaded phone call.  Here the unexpected humor is derived from the voice of a three-dimensional character:

On learning of my child’s drowning, I had not, as I stated, managed to weep.  Unlike my newly-sensitive ex-husband who–these days as an adopted Californian married to philosophy’s own Tiffany–can grow misty -eyed over anything, including a Nicoise salad if it is tossed beautifully.

In “Fear Not,” the first novella of the book,  a girl experiences–almost psychically–her father’s fatal freak motorboat accident.

It is now, just as yonder boat captain –worried at his best pal’s disappearance–turns the craft shoreward; now just as–one gin and tonic cooling in his free hand–he guns that fuel-injected outboard—it’s now the missing swimmer, holding his untangled towrope aloft, re-achieves air to gasp while laughing.  It’s now a 350-horsepower Pleasure-Craft outboard–revved up to top speed–intersects the precise point of said skier’s bobbing up now.  How clean and effective one stainless steel propeller decapitates the smiling water-skier.

The events that follow this horrifying scene are both surprising and logical.   If Forster was right when he wrote that “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way,” then this character is definitely round–not flat.  But more than that: a living breathing human being whom this queer reader found himself rooting for.

“Decoy”, the final novella in this volume, is my personal favorite–perhaps because it is the longest: 150 pages.  Mr. Gurganus was, I believe, correct to label this a novella, but it surely is the novella at its fullest, its characters the “roundest.”  Doc Roper is the much beloved local physician.  When he announces his retirement, the whole town of Falls feels the pain.  Here we are presented with the panoply of Falls humanity:   perfectly crafted, fully-realized characters. And then, in retirement, Doc Roper takes up a hobby:  perfectly crafting, fully-realized duck decoys.

Queer Reader has taken great pains in this review not to reveal any of the many surprises in these three novellas.  Suffice it to that these ‘convincing surprises’ are part of what makes reading them such a pleasure.

Allan Gurganus’s Local Souls is published by Liveright.

UPDATE 12/8/13:  Today it was announced that Local Souls made the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2013 list.  Good call!

UPDATE 3/6/14:  Today it was announced that Local Souls was nominated for Lambda’s Gay General Fiction Award.

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