Allan Gurganus, the author of the prize-winning best-seller "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," examines today's South in the form of three loosely-related novellas in "Local Souls," which are all set in Falls, N.C., a river town based on his hometown of Rocky Mount.
The first story, "Fear Not," is told by a novelist not unlike Gurganus, who has gone to a high school musical that features his godson in a small part. The boy's mother points to a young and seemingly loving couple sitting near them, and promises to tell him a story about them after the play is over. She does, and it is quite a story.
Now we cut back several years to a lavish July 4 outing at nearby Moonlight Lake. A water-skiier is decapitated in a freak accident. His wife becomes hysterical, and their teenage daughter is equally distraught. The man piloting the boat, a well-regarded local doctor, feels responsible for his friend's death and, neglecting his own family, tries to console the widow. She will not see him, so he turns his attention to the dead man's daughter.
His tearful efforts at consolation take a more sensual turn, and the 14-year-old girl becomes pregnant. The bereaved mother denounces him publicly, and after a failed attempt at suicide, he gathers up his family and starts a new life in Maine. The girl is sent away during her pregnancy, and the child is adopted. Years pass. At college, she meets a boy who reminds her of the doctor who seduced her. They fall in love, marry, have two daughters.
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Her husband also becomes a doctor, and as more time passes he begins ignoring her. She gets bored, decides to pursue a doctorate in Russian literature. Something in the gloomy Slavic world causes her to start missing her long-lost baby, now a teenager. She is convinced he was a boy, and one day she gets a telephone call. It is a young man who is searching for the mother who abandoned him. They meet and she becomes convinced he is her son. Her girls love him, her husband divorces her, and they wind up a devoted -- and possibly incestuous -- family. They were, of course, the couple at the play.
The second, "Saints Have Mothers," is told by a young mother of three; the two boys are rarely referred to, as she focusses on the much-loved younger daughter. Caitlin is beautiful, creative, impetuous, generous, talented and when she graduates from high school, flies off to Africa to "teach reading to people who cannot even afford books." Less than two months later, the mother gets a phone call telling her Caitlin has drowned, and asking for the money needed to ship the body home.
Her ex-husband has remarried and moved to California. He had encouraged Caitlin's trip, so she calls at 3:30 a.m. to bluntly give him the news and tell him what he had done. Then, after trying extort some money from the Quakers who sponsored the trip, she begins making plans for an extravagant memorial service. A young musician who had encouraged her daughter arrives to offer sympathy and she not only commissions him to write a Cantata in Caitlin's memory but to help her hire the Virginia Symphony Orchestra to perform it. She puts up the $15,000 advance and begins making plans to seduce him.
Then Caitlin returns. The phone call had been a scam to get money from her. After a brief reconciliation, the mother flies to Richmond to try and get her advance payment back from the Symphony. (They refuse.) Then, after a number of fights with her daughter, who she considers responsible for the whole fiasco, she heads off on an ocean cruise. Nothing the mother does seems in any way what an ordinary mother would do.
The third story is "Decoy," the longest, most ambitious and least coherent. It is told by Bill Mabry, a happily married father of two who shares a congenital heart defect with his son and his father, all of whom worship Doc Roper, their family physician. Toward the end of an endless and needlessly drawn-out narrative, the doctor retires and takes up carving ducks out of wood. He becomes famous for the realism of his decoys (which explains our title.) There is a flood, everything is lost, including the ducks. Everybody clings to what they value most, and in Mabry's case, that turns out to be Roper. He not only admires him but discovers, as he dies, that he feels sexual longings for him. At that point, the story comes to a long-awaited end.
Gurganus has a large following who seem to love and greatly admire his work, and he has received enthusiastic reviews in such publications as The New Yorker and New York Review of Books. He does have an impressive command of the language, but he is a little too impressed with his own cleverness, and too often appears to be speaking for his characters rather than allowing them to take on a life for themselves. As a result, I never cared about them or the stories they had to tell.