Falls, North Carolina, the setting for the three long stories or novellas that make up Allan Gurganus’s Local Souls, is the kind of place where people end up, come back to, can’t get away from. It has descendants of Confederates who consider themselves aristocrats, new tobacco money that has got old, middle-class, divorced white women stretching child support payments, white professionals, black tobacco workers, and black caddies at the country club, although this microcosm of a new New South has no Latinos. Falls is a farm town, though it has a slum. Falls also has the rural white poor who never dreamed they’d end up living among “the Fallen,” the rich who had their great houses on the River Road until the River Lithium answered the call of global warming and overflowed its banks.
Falls is not Yoknapatawpha County, but it has a history, its own obsession with the Civil War and with being southern, beginning in Gurganus’s exuberant first novel, Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All (1989). Falls mostly wears its post–World War II face in Gurganus’s work, which sometimes blurs the line between fiction and memoir. Falls is his childhood landscape. The writer is the narrator of “He’s One, Too,” a story from The Practical Heart (2001) that recounts the destruction of a married man and his family after he’s arrested for approaching a youth in a urinal in Falls in 1957. In one of the stories in Gurganus’s collection White People (1990), a sweet but lonely fan of pornography is living in his mother’s big house in Falls, with a long-out-of-date 1959 calendar still on the wall. In his second novel, Plays Well with Others (1997), Gurganus’s narrator is a writer, safely back in Falls, having survived the madness of New York and AIDS in the early 1980s.
In the stories of Gurganus, the South is a small town, whether a street in Richmond or Charlottesville or Falls. It is the home of secrets, of things not being what they seem. Proximity is scrutiny; neighbors are stories. What the small town means maybe hasn’t changed since Sherwood Anderson’s time. If it is not the social truth anymore, then the small town is a powerful literary convention nevertheless. We accept that the small town can reveal something essential about the American soul, northern or southern.
The fortunate are still available for satire; they are also tough enough to survive being the targets of Gurganus-style black comedy. The first novella of Local Souls, “Fear Not,” introduces a writer attending a Falls High School production of Sweeney Todd. He is anxious to hear from his New York agent about the Civil War novel he has just handed in. It took him seven years to write it. He is restless, curious, wary of empty time. “Aren’t all real writers always writing?” he asks. A handsome blond couple in the audience attracts…
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