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“The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus” By: Allan Gurganus

“The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus”

Author: Allan Gurganus

Publisher: Liveright Pub. Co.

Pages: 239

Price: $25.95 (Hardcover)

New Stories from One of the South’s Best

“Local Souls,” a volume of three novellas, was Gurganus’ last book, published in 2007. It was brilliant and challenging, and this one is just as good.

These nine stories were published in “The New Yorker,” “Harper’s,” “Granta” and “Tin House,” “The Virginia Quarterly Review” and “The Sewanee Review,” fine magazines that help keep the short story alive.

These are fleshed-out stories, not flash fiction. Fully developed at about twenty pages, they give the feel of short novels, complete and satisfying.

The oldest story here is “The Mortician Confesses,” 1993, and like many of them is bold in subject matter.

Set in Gurganus’ fictional Falls, North Carolina, the narrator is a deputy sheriff tape-recording his official report. He and his partner have, nearly by chance, discovered the local mortician, as the British say, “interfering with” the body of Deborah Jo Hartman in the back of a hearse.

Of course, this is grotesque, to the deputy and the reader, but as he records his account, in a kind of stream of consciousness, with stunned honesty, to his own amazement, he admits he felt, as he viewed the naked corpse, “a teensy bit of, if not desire, then…imagination. Yoosh!”

The deputy, not a philosopher, nevertheless realizes that “we ain’t got clue number one as to what-all lurks in the human heart.”

The opening story and the newest, published in 2020, “The Wish for a Good Young Doctor,” is by chance timely, coming early in the Covid pandemic. A young, cocky, 26-year-old, popular culture scholar at the University of Iowa does “research” by visiting junk shops, antique shops looking for handmade folk toys, usually carvings. His attitude towards this folk art is largely ironical.

At Theodosia’s Antiques, he spots an old oil painting, a portrait, and Theodosia takes over. She tells our narrator it was the town doctor just out of med school in 1849 who had to cope with a plague of cholera brought there to rural Iowa, by one local boy who had sailed, for adventure, to China.

Young Dr. Petrie dedicated himself to helping his new townsmen, making house calls to all the ill and dying. He advises them to isolate in groups, stay home, care for one another, neglect no one. The advice is prescient and priceless, and, for a while he is a hero, but when he falls ill they turn on him, even blame him.

In the story “Fourteen Feet of Water in My House,” the narrator, an insurance agent, awakens at 3:00 A.M. in his bedroom. He goes out the second-floor window and, with his aluminum fishing boat, sets about rescuing friends and neighbors, and strangers. As the night passes, we learn more about him and the town of Falls.

He lives in one of the finest, oldest houses in town, bought by his father, who was hoping to climb the social ladder. But father sold shoes, knelt before rich ladies, and social strata in Falls were granite.

Behind his back, father’s nickname among the smug pretentious was “Shoe.”

There is a story of a boy carried through the air by a tornado. Years later, that boy is persuaded to put into words the feelings he had on that bizarre flight.

“Fetch “is the story of the transcendent love of a rich, sophisticated couple for their old dog.

Gurganus is 73, and afraid of nothing. The mortician story has a risqué dimension, shall we say, and in “My Heart Is a Snake Farm,” an elderly librarian, retired and moved to Florida, has her first and only sexual experience, unusual but entirely satisfactory.

Several of the stories are of older people, coping, changing, coming to terms with those changes.

An elderly lady docent, giving an historic tour of Falls, has a kind of nervous breakdown.

In “He’s at the Office” a dedicated employee cannot stop going to work. His family cons him and consoles him, building a replica of his office in the house.

This is first-rate fiction, exploratory, demanding, serious, but with humorous moments, with turns, surprises, psychological revelations—Henry James examining a small Carolina town.

John Milton feared the audience for “Paradise Lost” might be “fit though few.” He knew the subject matter was controversial, contentious, and the poem long and dense. Gurganus is not John Milton, and, as the novelist John Barth once told me, we should not, in fact cannot, deny the public its taste. We all enjoy fiction that is diverting, inspiring, uplifting.

But the rewards of literary fiction more than repay the effort.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.