The four novellas in this collection by Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, etc.) divide neatly into stylistic halves. The first two, "The Practical Heart" and "Preservation News," are written with an almost Jamesian attention to the semaphore of implications and elided emotions that mediate social pretenses. "The Practical Heart," which tells how the narrator's great-aunt Muriel Fraser came to be painted by John Singer Sargent, first builds a story, then deconstructs it. The story is foregrounded in the collapse of the Fraser family's Scottish fortune, which maroons the clan in Chicago, where Muriel goes from being a pampered heiress to a piano teacher. But the second chapter in this story takes us behind the scenes of the fiction, showing how Muriel, a stubborn, fragile woman, became her nephew-narrator's first guide to life outside of parochial Falls, N.C. In "Preservation News," Mary Ellen Broadfield, an 81-year-old woman of quality in Falls, writes the obituary of Tad Worth, the moving spirit behind the local preservationist scene. Openly gay, martini-loving, gossipy and unkempt, Worth carved a space for himself in Falls that would have been unimaginable in an earlier era. The next two stories, written in a more freewheeling style, inhabit the dark side of that earlier era. "He's One, Too," tells of the ruin of a local businessman, Dan R., caught feeling up a 15-year-old boy in a rest-room setup in Raleigh. "Saint Monster" is a memoir of Clyde Melvin Delman Sr. by his son. Clyde, an ugly, much cuckolded salesman, spent his life passing as white. Although the first two novellas are beautifully realized, the last two are needier texts, requiring an empathy on thereader's part that they don't quite merit. 14-city author tour. (Oct. 4) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Four novellas, each in its own way elegiac and tributary, from the accomplished North Carolinian author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and Plays Well with Others (1997). The slightest and most conventional, "He's One, Too," picks up the gay themes prominent in several of Gurganus's earlier stories: it's a remembrance of the scandal created by a "beloved local church and business leader" entrapped and arrested on a morals charge-a charge by the boy (now middle-aged) who had loved the older man hopelessly, and found mirrored in the former's "offenses" his own emergent homosexuality. "The Practical Heart" (winner of a National Magazine Award) recounts both the early years of its narrator's Scottish great-aunt, a resourceful spinster whose reduced fortunes stimulated her fascination with portrait painter John Singer Sargent, and his own relationship with her in her old age, which he has lovingly captured and mythologized. All four stories are set in, or hearken back to, the sleepy hamlet of Falls, North Carolina-portrayed perhaps most affectionately in "Preservation News," a memoir of flamboyant Tad Worth, after his death of AIDS: a "preservationist" who loved and lobbied to save beautiful old houses, sashayed around Falls with Capote-esque gusto, and left a legacy of compassionate engagement with his world that's crystallized in the story's memorable central set piece-a delicately haunting biracial ghost story. Even better is "Saint Monster," in which a 50ish classics professor recalls his puzzled, loving relationship with his father and namesake ("the ugliest white man alive in Falls"), a long-suffering traveling salesman repeatedly cuckolded (now there's a switch) byhis infantile wife, and the bearer of a compromising secret from which he stoically shields his son. This is a triumph of subtle, slowly building characterization, and more: a compact epic of deeply entangled and enigmatic parental, marital, and filial devotion and duplicity. Unforgettable stuff. One of contemporary fiction's most ebullient and versatile stylists strikes again-straight to the heart. Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selection