Local Souls

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With the meteoric success of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Allan Gurganus placed himself among America’s most original and emotionally engaged storytellers. If his first comic novel mapped the late nineteenth-century South, Local Souls brings the twisted hilarity of Flannery O’Connor kicking into our new century.
Through memorable language and bawdy humor, Gurganus returns to his mythological Falls, North Carolina, home of Widow. This first work in a decade offers ...

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With the meteoric success of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Allan Gurganus placed himself among America’s most original and emotionally engaged storytellers. If his first comic novel mapped the late nineteenth-century South, Local Souls brings the twisted hilarity of Flannery O’Connor kicking into our new century.
Through memorable language and bawdy humor, Gurganus returns to his mythological Falls, North Carolina, home of Widow. This first work in a decade offers three novellas mirroring today’s face-lifted South, a zone revolutionized around freer sexuality, looser family ties, and superior telecommunications, yet it celebrates those locals who have chosen to stay local. In doing so, Local Souls uncovers certain old habits—adultery, incest, obsession—still very much alive in our New South, a "Winesburg, Ohio" with high-speed Internet.
Wells Tower says of Gurganus, "No living writer knows more about how humans matter to each other." Such ties of love produce hilarious, if wrenching, complications: "Fear Not" gives us a banker's daughter seeking the child she was forced to surrender when barely fifteen, only to find an adult rescuer she might have invented. In "Saints Have Mothers," a beloved high school valedictorian disappears during a trip to Africa, granting her ambitious mother a postponed fame that turns against her. And in a dramatic "Decoy," the doctor-patient friendship between two married men breaks toward desire just as a biblical flood shatters their neighborhood and rearranges their fates.Gurganus finds fresh pathos in ancient tensions: between marriage and Eros, parenthood and personal fulfillment. He writes about erotic hunger and social embarrassment with Twain's knife-edged glee. By loving Falls, Gurganus dramatizes the passing of Hawthorne’s small-town nation into those Twitter-nourished lives we now expect and relish.Four decades ago, John Cheever pronounced Allan Gurganus "the most technically gifted and morally responsive writer of his generation." Local Souls confirms Cheever’s prescient faith. It deepens the luster of Gurganus’s reputation for compassion and laughter. His black comedy leaves us with lasting affection for his characters and the aching aftermath of human consequences. Here is a universal work about a village.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Decoy is the most dignified and searching of these novellas. It's got a lot to say about class—the narrator's family has "barely made the broad-jump from clay tobacco fields to red clay courts"—and just as much about the ways communities emotionally expand and contract. It has a soulful pang of heartache, especially over abandonment by close friends.
The New York Times Book Review - Jamie Quatro
…if there remains any doubt of [Gurganus's] literary greatness…Local Souls should put it to rest forever…[it] is a tour de force in the tradition of Hawthorne. It shows that Gurganus's vast creative and imaginative powers, still rooted in the local, are increasingly universal in scope and effect. The book is an expansive work of love…The prose is taut with the electric charge of internal rhyme, assonance and alliteration. Each touch yields an invigorating shock…Like Chekhov and Cheever before him, Gurganus registers an enormous amount of compassion for the characters he holds to the fire. These local souls may be "fallen," but Gurganus seems well aware that the biblical fall also implies a promise: the chance to earn forgiveness, and perhaps even redemption.
Publishers Weekly
Gurganus returns to Falls, N.C., the setting of his Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, with this trio of linked novellas. "Fear Not" subjects a smalltown golden girl to horrific loss, an unplanned pregnancy, and a lifetime of wondering about the fate of her baby. The protagonist of "Saints Have Mothers" reluctantly sees her luminous, gifted daughter off on a global adventure, and has her worst fears realized. As she handles her own grief and the unfolding spectacle of Falls's collective mourning, Gurganus ratchets up the inner keening and deftly balances it with a certain sense of escalating absurdity. In "Decoy," a family history gets spun out as a backdrop to the retirement of the town's senior physician, a friend and confidant to the narrator, Bill Mabry, who still sees himself as a bit of an interloper in the country club set. "He knew so much. And about us! Our septic innards, our secret chin-lifts, our actual alcohol intake in liters-per-day." But as Dr. Roper leaves his medical role, Mabry's sense of loss gets sharper as the two men grow more remote from each other. In these layered, often funny narratives, close reading is rewarded as Gurganus exposes humanity as a strange species. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Sept.)
William Giraldi - Oxford American
“[Local Souls] is an astounding testament to Gurganus's narrative vibrancy, faultless plotting, and Everyman/mythic vision…. Of living novelists in English, only Martin Amis and Cormac McCarthy can match Gurganus's pyrotechnical aptitude for language, for forging a verbiage both rapturous and exact. He's categorically incapable of crafting a dull sentence…. [He is] one of the most exciting fiction writers alive.”
Jamie Quatro - New York Times Book Review
“It’s been 12 years since Gurganus last published a full-length work—but if there remains any doubt of his literary greatness, his fifth book, Local Souls, should put it to rest forever…. A tour de force in the tradition of Hawthorne. It shows that Gurganus’s vast creative and imaginative powers, still rooted in the local, are increasingly universal in scope and effect. The book is an expansive work of love…Gurganus moves beyond [Sherwood] Anderson and Faulkner in calling into question the very notion of ‘inappropriate’: the emotional misalignments in his fiction feel both understandable and familiar. Like Chekhov and Cheever before him, Gurganus registers an enormous amount of compassion for the characters he holds to the fire.”
T. C. Boyle
“Allan Gurganus has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and shudder at the same time. That rare gift is on full and glorious display here.”
Dwight Garner - New York Times
“A serious and important American writer—his work has meant a lot to me over time… It’s good to have him back after a long absence.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Gurganus unearths Falls's piquant, humanizing secrets. If the gossip seems cruel, it's always meant with affection. "Small towns, being untraveled literalists, do tend to tease a lot," Mr. Gurganus writes. "What big cities might call Sadism little towns name Fun."”
Thomas Mallon - New Yorker
“The first-person voice’s capacity for lifelikeness and oral illusion has been Gurganus’s great Southern storytelling inheritance… Local Souls stays true to its author’s vocal aesthetic.”
Carlo Wolff - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Occasionally shocking, consistently understated and knowing, Local Souls deploys three related novellas that deal with people who don't fit in. The world of Allan Gurganus' first new work of fiction in a dozen years is both familiar and eccentric…. Just as all-American as the folks Sherwood Anderson brought to life in Winesburg, Ohio nearly a century ago….Giving away the ending would be to give away a secret. Mr. Gurganu—imaginative, kind, even humorous—builds toward that secret so skillfully, our arrival at it becomes a pact with the characters themselves.”
Laura Albritton - Miami Herald
“Gurganus [is] fearfully gifted…. The gem of Local Souls is the gorgeous Decoy, in which Gurganus removes the gloves and delivers the literary equivalent of a bare-knuckled knockout. Decoy is so good that you want to lob all sorts of adjectives its way: warm, humane, profound, sagacious, hilarious, nostalgic, and incisive…. The last pages of Local Souls prove once again that there is no writer alive quite like Allan Gurganus.”
Gina Webb - Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Allan Gurganus proves once again that small-town life in the New South can be as tragic and twisted as anything out of an ancient Greek playbook…. The chatty, roundabout storytelling, the wicked humor and sense of the absurd often disguise the gravity of these investigations into life’s tendency to ‘retract its promise overight,’ to ‘become a vale of tears breaking over you in sudden lashing.’ Hidden above the safe confines of the Falls, Zeus readies his lightning bolts.”
“Vivid language, provocative sentence structure, and metaphors that elevate the reader’s consciousness. [Gurganus] shares with his southern cohorts a delight in discovering the quotidian within lives led under extraordinary, even bizarre circumstances.”
Ann Patchett
“Allan Gurganus breathes so much life into the town of Falls, North Carolina, his reader is able to walk down the streets and mingle with the local souls. This book underscores what we have long known—Gurganus stands among the best writers of our time.”
Amy Hempel
“Allan Gurganus gives us his all: A lifeline to the residents of Falls, N.C.—'The Fallen'—show us how to live with decency and yearning. Endlessly entertaining and original, this book sets a benchmark for contemporary fiction.”
Edmund White
“Allan Gurganus is our verbal magician. He turns factual rabbits into poetic doves. Every sentence contains a surprise, but the brilliant surface doesn’t dazzle us from peering into the tender human depths.”
John Irving
“The architecture of Allan Gurganus's storytelling is flawless. His narration becomes a Greek chorus, Sophocles in North Carolina. Gurganus makes the preternatural feel natural. Sexual taboos, a parent’s worst fears: these emerge in tones comic and horrifying. Each novella delivers an ending of true force.”
Wells Tower
“Local Souls leaves the reader surfeited with gifts. This is a book to be read for the minutely tuned music of Gurganus's language, its lithe and wicked wit, its luminosity of vision—shining all the brighter for the heat of its compassion. These are tales to make us whole.”
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2013
In this first work in 12 years, Gurganus offers three luscious, perceptively written pieces, each as rich as any full-length novel and together exploring the depth of our connections. The teenage girl who loses both father and virginity and takes 20 years to come full circle to the family tie that matters ("Fear Not"); the mother who's sacrificed all for a brilliant, do-gooding daughter worshipped in town even before she goes missing on a trip to Africa ("Saints Have Mothers"); and the not-quite-accepted-as-townie insurance man in an unequal relationship with the revered town doctor ("Decoy")—all are here in Falls, NC. Yes, Falls, the setting of Gurganus's immortal Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. In all three novellas, there's a pervasive sense of the power of community expectations and the question of whether we can challenge fate. "Fear Not" protagonist Susan escapes hers, while Bill in "Decoys," who says he was "either meant to be or love" Doc Roper, just seems stuck. VERDICT These pieces are so fresh and real that the reader has the sense of walking through a dissolving plate-glass window straight into the lives of the characters. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/13.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-10
A witty and soulful trio of novellas by master storyteller Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1989, etc.), who claims his place here as the laureate of the Southern cul-de-sac. Falls, N.C.--the setting of Widow and a significant place in other moments of Gurganus-ian geography--is hicksville-turned–gated suburb, the milieu of sometimes-haunted, often dissatisfied souls with secrets to keep. Some of them, nestled among the dogwoods and carefully clipped yards, have seen more than they should. Some have found redemption of a kind, as with the protagonist of a story nested within a story in the opening piece, Fear Not, in which the gentle daughter of a local worthy learns of the son that she had to give up for adoption after having been raped by her godfather. She knew nothing about the child, "one taken without her even discovering its sex," but now, years later, she knows something of life--and all that is packed within just the first "act," as Gurganus calls it. Gurganus manages the neat hat trick of blending the stuff of everyday life with Faulkner-ian gothic and Chekhov-ian soul-searching, all told in assured language that resounds, throughout all three novellas, in artfully placed sententiae: "Some people's futures look so smooth, only sadists would bother delivering even temporary setbacks." "I soon learned: journalism and motherhood are two fields jet-fueled by frequent triage caffeine blasts." This being the South, the Civil War figures in sometimes-odd ways, from a subject of fiction to a matter of quotidian life; in the second novella, indeed, it's recapitulated in the struggle between exes on opposite coasts. Race figures, too, as Gurganus writes of the well-heeled duffers of Falls' premier country club as having "secret kinsmen hidden one or two counties away," a case in point, in a fine "A Rose for Emily" moment, being a "clay-colored" man who now stands among them. Whatever their subject, and told from widely different points of view--male and female, young and old--the novellas have a conversational tone and easy manner that are a testimony to the author's craftsmanship. A gem, like Gurganus' previous collection of novellas, The Practical Heart (2002). Readers will eagerly await the next news out of Falls.
Kevin Fenton - Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The pleasures of Allan Gurganus’ Local Souls are pretty much the pleasures of fiction, period: the satisfactions of the tale and the surprise of the phrase, insights into the human condition and portraits from a particular place, a sharp sense of the physical world and a freshened awareness of the pulls and pains of social class. Pick a page and you’ll find a sentence to love…. Dazzling.”
Brett Lott - Boston Globe
“The beloved author whose literary bona fides rank him among the most revered writers of the last 50 years, Gurganus has an eye for gesture large and small, an ear for voice at once razor-sharp and tender, and a way with finding the absolutely precise moment of dramatic tension.”
Elizabeth Taylor - Chicago Tribune
“Each novella in Local Souls…is guided by the centrifugal force of memory, heart and a playful, agile mind…Let these novellas bring attention to the overlooked art form. They will please readers who have been waiting for more from an admired writer who is funny, appropriately dark and can magically twirl a sentence.”
Tom Lavoie - Shelf Awareness
“Thoroughly enjoyable…. Here are finely rendered portraits—and, behind the faces, fascinating stories. Listen to the voices, so pitch perfect, the words, oh so readable. And Falls, home to the fallen; it's on the map. Come visit.”
T. C. Boyle
“Allan Gurganus has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and shudder at the same time. That rare gift is on full and glorious display here.”
Clyde Edgerton - Garden & Gun
“Refreshing. . . . an antidote to the marketplace’s mass message and massage. . . . The house of a master-magician-builder-writer. . . . Go ahead, step in, light up your life.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Ever since Sherwood Anderson published Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, American writers who set out to describe small- town life have struggled with his influence like an inherited disease. Allan Gurganus is no different. The people of Falls, North Carolina — the small town that serves as the setting of the three novellas in Local Souls, his fifth book of fiction — are grotesques who smashed their moral compass long ago (if they ever had one) and now find themselves wandering aimlessly along the edges of an insular and isolated community. They are "souls born to stay local," solitary and self-pitying over their marginal status, "stranded in some garrison town." With an upgrade of their electrical gadgets and a WiFi connection, they could have stepped from Anderson's pages. Even the map printed as a frontispiece, with the sites of key events carefully flagged, looks like the map in Winesburg, Ohio.

Gurganus is best known for his 1989 debut. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a 700-page Little Big Man of the Civil War and its aftermath, was published when he was forty-two. It enjoyed all the ripe, sweet fruits of the blockbuster: months-long stay on the New York Times bestseller list, Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, Hollywood adaptation. Gurganus has never come close to duplicating its success, has never seemed to want to. Plays Well with Others may be the better novel — a story that did for pre- AIDS New York what Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939 did for pre-Holocaust Europe — but it attracted less than one-eighth the attention of his first novel. He is probably at his best in Henry James's "ideal, the beautiful and blest nouvelle," the genre of fiction that marries the tight effects of a short story to the larger vision of a novel. Local Souls is Gurganus's second collection, following The Practical Heart just over a decade later.

"Fear Not," the opening tale, is told by a writer who sounds suspiciously like Gurganus himself. Having "FedExed north [his] Civil War novel" a few days earlier, he is "becalmed and itchy between novels." As a favor to a friend, he attends a high school production of Sweeney Todd to watch his teenage godson in a supporting role. There a glamorous couple catches his eye — "tall athletic blondes," "the lion-kingly." Immediately his "narrative capacity" kicks in. "A storyteller's first task is knowing the tale when he sees it," he says. To redeem curiosity from voyeurism, he must ferret out the whole story. And what a story! A boating accident (water skier, decapitation) leads to the seduction of a minor and then incest: rarely has Southern Gothic been narrated with such good cheer. Throughout, Gurganus keeps his attention focused on the possibility for happiness in even the most twisted of fates. If the ending seems arbitrary and unlikely, the reason is that Gurganus prefers comedy, whose tranquility may seem just as arbitrary and unlikely, to the inevitable door slam of tragedy. For him the human problem is to find some "route to joy" (most are "detours," he adds), and to bless those who manage to find one.

In "Saints Have Mothers," the comic ending is an even more satisfying break with the "iron neck-brace of expectation." Caitlin Mulray, an overachieving high school student with a reputation for left-wing preening (she wins a national contest for Best Poem Concerning the Homeless) and uninhibited selflessness (she donates her mother's shoes to charity without asking), travels to Africa in the summer between her junior and senior years to "drill ABC's into tribal babies with flies working the wet corners of their little eyes." She drowns while swimming in an African river. A phone call from the interior asks her mother, Jean, where to send the body. She wires the money to pay for the international shipment.

An unreliable narrator whose IQ swells from 156 to 171 over the course of the story (even if she does say so herself), Jean throws all her energies into planning a memorial service for Caitlin. She commissions an original piece of music and enlists the Virginia Symphony Orchestra to play it. She even summons the courage, although paralyzed by stage fright her entire adult life, to prepare a passage from the Book of Common Prayer to recite in her daughter's memory. Then Caitlin returns home. A "brainiac" IQ was not enough to protect her mother from an African con man. Unable to cry when Caitlin was reported dead, Jean cries now at becoming a laughingstock in Falls: "I cried for the way only Tragedy had ever made me feel comically-and-completely alive," she says. "I thought of that now-trite line: Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy." Her happiness at Caitlin's "rebirth" only reveals the unhappiness at the core of her own life and permits her — perhaps — to begin to discover a happiness of her own. If only by admitting that perhaps her daughter is not quite as wonderful and selfless — or as lovable — as she is reputed to be.

"Decoy," the 150-page novella that concludes the book, is worth the price of the entire collection. Except for his red and angry- looking Bush-and-Republicans-and-Fox-News bashing — the common skin disease of so much contemporary American fiction - - Gurganus has tackled a subject that interests few of his peers: "Brands of cars in here I recognize but not what any of these crazy lazy people do all day," his main character grouses after reading an armful of recent novels. "I'm bored for 'em." Gurganus is interested in men and women who do more than talk about things, although his characters talk up a storm and in a unique and beguiling idiom. They may occasionally sound more literary (and liberal) than most ordinary southerners, but they aren't writers or literary intellectuals. The narrator of "Decoy" is an insurance man, for instance, and the main character is the town's doctor.

After retirement, Doc Roper discovers his second calling. Inspired by the work of traditional American folk artists, the doc begins to carve duck decoys so good you feel your own landing gear coming down (the crack is his). The better he gets, the more he retreats from his old friends among the people of Falls. His studio lights burn all night, but he doesn't see anyone anymore. As his fame grows, newspapers and magazines seek him out for profiles. He signs with a New York agent; his best pieces are reserved for museums and "top Manhattan collectors." His old friends could not afford them, even if he were inclined to sell them locally.

Doc's tragic error is to remain in Falls, despite his success. Those who flee the town of 6,803 "local souls" do so "to strain for stardom elsewhere." Those who stay behind are inured to frustration and failure. Except for Doc, who must have assumed the town's hex did not apply to him.

But it was not to be. A hurricane named Greta (obviously modeled upon Hurricane Floyd, the 1999 storm that dumped seventeen inches of rain on North Carolina and caused rivers in the state to rise to 500-year flood levels) makes landfall one night in early September. The residents of Falls are not even aware their houses have flooded till they come downstairs in the morning. Gurganus is at his best at describing the aftermath of the storm, the treasures ruined, the lives turned inside out. No one suffers more than Doc Roper, whose entire collection of museum-quality decoys is swept away by the flood waters. Addled by the loss, he spends the rest of his life — he is in his eighties, though still vigorous — searching drainage trenches and roadside gulleys for his beloved ducks. In his grief over the disappearance of his second life's work, Doc becomes even more of an outsider in Falls than when he was establishing himself as a "Manhattan-worthy" artist. The town that once depended upon his sutures and scripts turns on him with a vengeance. There is talk about getting up a petition. Wandering the town's roadsides in shorts, carrying a walking stick with which he pokes at piles of rubbish, looking feral, the Doc is "sending the wrong signal to Falls' newcomers." Thus one man's tragedy becomes an entire town's comedy.

Sixty years ago, Lionel Trilling rejected the idea that Sherwood Anderson could ever be a major writer, accusing him of vaporous sentimentality. His one truth, though, if it is taken out of Anderson's hands, remains a firm truth: "The small legitimate existence, so necessary for the majority of men to achieve, is in our age so very hard, so nearly impossible, for them to achieve." In Falls, North Carolina, things are no easier than they were in Winesburg, Ohio. In Allan Gurganus's fiction, though, there is no sentimentalizing over life's hardness, perhaps because more of his men and women achieve a legitimate existence than is usual in contemporary American fiction.

D. G. Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880. He teaches English and Jewish studies at the Ohio State University.

Reviewer: D.G. Myers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871403797
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 9/23/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Allan Gurganus

Alan Gurganus's, books include White People and Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Gurganus is a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Adaptations of his fiction have earned four Emmys. A resident of his native North Carolina, he lives in a village of six thousand souls.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2013

    I would like my $1.99 and the 45 minutes of my life back. To be

    I would like my $1.99 and the 45 minutes of my life back. To be fair, I only read the first 31 pages, but it was all I could take. This book got off to an extremely bizarre start, and the writing became monotonous with all the "Let's just say...and then let's just say..." sentences. "Let's just say" that with so many books and so little time, I left Fearnot and the good doc sitting all by themselves in that car on the country lane. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2014

    Well-written, quirky stories

    With a dry and dark sense of humor, the author entwines multiple stories of the lives of individuals in a small Southern town.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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