For some readers, plot is the most important element of fiction. Others focus on setting, description, prose style, character.
I care about all those things, but I must confess that what I respond to first and last is voice: the personality of the narrative, the sense that a distinct individual is speaking through the pages.
That’s why I was glad to dive into a copy of The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus. The North Carolina native is a master of voice, a born storyteller with a gift for balancing the darkness and the tenderness of the human heart in his fiction.
Gurganus first made his mark in 1989 with his debut novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. It’s a hilarious, heartbreaking tour de force narrated by Lucy Marsden, who married at the turn of the 20th century, when she was 15 and her husband a 50-year-old Civil War veteran. The book spent eight months on the New York Times bestseller list, sold 4 million copies and inspired both a 1994 TV miniseries and a 2003 Broadway play.
Gurganus has published several works of fiction since then and has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop and writing programs at Stanford and Duke universities; his students have included Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken. He writes essays and editorials about homophobia, racism and foreign policy for the New York Times and other publications.
This volume collects nine of his short stories, previously published in the New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta and other publications.
It opens with a very recent story, The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor, published in April in the New Yorker and chilling in its timeliness.
Its narrator is an older man recalling himself as a wise-guy graduate student in American studies back in the 1970s. “Most kids lose or break their toys. I curated mine,” he begins, leading us into a tale of a road trip through tiny Midwestern towns looking for folk art and handmade toys about which he can write scholarly studies.
His last stop is an antique store presided over by Theodosia, an older woman physically disabled by a severely bent spine, but sharply intelligent enough to spot the narrator for what he is: “You toy people, cutthroat bunch….”
He forgets the toys when he spots an old oil portrait of a young man. He’s captivated by its pensive expression, then engrossed by the story Theodosia tells, full of gossip and bitter humor.
In 1849, she tells him, a local boy went to sea, came home and gave the whole town cholera. The town had a brand-new doctor, fresh out of medical school, the young man in the portrait. Dr. Markus Petrie made heroic efforts to treat his new patients, and at first the town saw him as a hero, even sending its daughters around to court him.
But in those days long before water treatment systems and antibiotics, cholera cut its swift and deadly path, killing whole families even as Petrie treated them. In their grief, the townspeople blamed him, even after his final act of self-sacrifice.
So why the oil portrait, which has hung all these years in the town library? “Why, a sacrificed doctor looked different, now their own health was back,” Theodosia says of the epidemic’s aftermath. But now no one remembers his story but her. She gives the portrait to the narrator, and it changes his life.
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Several of these stories deal with such life-changing moments for their narrators. In A Fool for Christmas, a mall pet-store manager reaches out to a teenage runaway and works something like a miracle. In Unassisted Human Flight, a reporter cajoles an interview out of a local man who, as a young boy, survived being picked up and carried a quarter-mile by a tornado — and finds out the day means something very different to the flying boy.
Fetch is a gripping account of a bystander watching as an attractive couple and their fat, happy old Labrador retriever make a visit to the beach that turns utterly terrifying. Fourteen Feet of Water is a shocking and dreamlike tale about a man who wakes to find his entire posh, waterfront neighborhood flooded by a storm.
In The Mortician Confesses, a small-town deputy stops to check out a hearse parked in an unlikely spot and ends up asking, “What kind of God lets this stuff happen, then arranges it so’s I’ll be the one who comes upon it whilst on duty and holding that caliber of flashlight?”
Among the best of these stories are several that deal with aging. He’s at the Office is a poignant story about a man who served in World War II and came home emotionally shut off. Part of a generation that suffered post-traumatic stress disorder before it was ever named, Dick Markham finds solace and structure in his job as a salesman for an office-supply company.
But that devotion comes at the cost of his relationships with his wife and sons. He misses every Little League game and talks business at anniversary dinners. As the narrator, one of his sons, says, “If he had been General Eisenhower saving the Western world or Dr. Salk sparing children polio, okay. But yellow Eagle pencils?”
Markham is still working at 80, but one day his loyal secretary shows his son a note her boss wrote to himself, reminders of his address, his route home, the names of his wife and sons. At first his family struggles to deal with his dementia, until they come up with a solution both clever and merciful.
Readers of Oldest Living Confederate Widow might remember the little town of Falls, N.C., “the Athens of This Far into Eastern North Carolina,” as one character calls it. It makes several appearances in this book, none more memorable than in The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC) — Light Lunch Inclusive.
Its narrator is the elderly but indomitable (almost) Mrs. Evelyn du Pre Wells, a volunteer docent leading the tour of the title. Descended from town founders, she prides herself on her inside knowledge and on being back to share it after “the slightest recent medical setback.”
“No, this work takes a certain kind of brain,” she says.”Narrative imagination. I don’t simply recite history. I interpret. Or ‘interrupt,’ as my middle-aged daughter jokes. ‘Mother is a licensed “historic interrupter,”’ my girl told her best book group. They all laughed. So I had to.”
She still has insights: “History is embarrassments. What else, in toto, was our attractive if deluded Confederacy?” But this tour will bring back to her an episode in her personal history that lays her low.
The book’s last story, My Heart Is a Snake Farm, is set not in Falls but in Florida, right along U.S. Highway 301, in 1960. Its narrator, Esther, is a recently retired grammar-school librarian who has shaken the snow of Toledo from her heels and ended up buying a roadside motel, the “crumbling pink” Los Parnassus Palms: “‘That’s almost literary,’ I said, hitting the brakes of my blue Dodge.”
She has no intention of running a motel, though — she lives there, happily, by herself, turning off the pink neon “Vacancy” sign. Then one day, “imagine my alarm when the two acres right across my highway here blossomed into Carnival overnight. … The man in charge, I saw from my perch, was a big tanned white-haired fellow, all shoulders and department-store safari gear.”
In a single day, Mr. Buck and a crew of laborers build a roadside attraction featuring a newly dug pond full of 40 alligators and tanks crawling with rattlesnakes. Buck also has in tow several Airstream trailers and three wives.
Esther’s first reaction: “white-trash eyesore.” But then she considers how much her life has been controlled and restricted by her late mother and decides to make a change.
Pretty soon she’s drinking pink daiquiris and trading bawdy quips with Buck, a heady experience for her: “All my life, even when I was six, males have treated me like the Maiden Aunt. A self-fulfilling trend.”
She makes friends with the wives, whom she discovers are smart enough but short on education: ”They’d once felt too attractive to ever need much additional information.”
Esther even has a role in the show that entertains the tourists. She’ll play a most crucial part, though, when Buck is snakebit, an event that will change her life more than his. And she’ll tell us all about it in a most beguiling voice.
Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus
By Allan Gurganus
Liveright, 240 pages, $25.95
Oxford Exchange Bookstore and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance present a free virtual event with Allan Gurganus at 5 p.m. Jan. 12. To register, go to oxfordexchange.com/pages/calendar.