Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My crush on Allan Gurganus

Having confessed to a major writer’s crush on Allan Gurganus, I thought I’d add a few words of explanation today. Well, of course, for starters, how could you not love a man who founded “Writers Against Jesse Helms?”

­But there’s more, much more. Damned if I can find it again, but somewhere I read a quote from Gurganus that went something like this, “I write the funniest books I know how to write about the most terrible things I can imagine.” I can’t find where I read this and maybe I made it up because I wanted him to say it. It’s certainly evidenced in his writing. As a native Alabamian, I recognize this from deep in my roots: the storytellers I grew up with, the ones I later read: Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor – all of them mixed humor and the "terrible things" of life.

Of course, Gurganus can write pure hilarity. “Nativity, Caucasian,” one of the twelve stories in WHITE PEOPLE, is an example. It begins:
“(What’s wrong with you?” my wife asks. She already knows. I tell her anyway.)
I was born at a bridge party.”
Tell me you aren’t hooked by that opening. HA! What follows is a laugh-out-loud (maybe even slapstick?) story that perfectly captures Southern
ladies’ bridge parties and has two of my favorite ending lines anywhere. After her guest (finally) gives birth on a kitchen table from which dishes have been swept crashing to the floor, the hostess and her friend survey the mess. The hostess “cheered herself” by remarking that “it’s not nearly so bad” as she remembered and then this:
“Then they scuffed straight into ankle-deep debris, waded toward the broom closet, got boldly back to it, got on with it, with life as it is practiced on this particular handsome side street in this particular dwindling country, ladies getting on with business as usual.
World without end. Amen.” 
Gurganus can also write stories with more "terrible" than humor in them. One such is “Fear Not” in his most recent collection, LOCAL SOULS. In this novella, the narrator (who has just finished writing a book that sounds a lot like OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL, Gurganus’ first novel) goes with his friend, Jemma, to see her son – his godson – in a high school play. A “golden” couple, obviously in love, obviously unable to keep their hands off each other, sit next to them. They are there, they say, to see “our girl” in the play. Afterward, the narrator’s friend tells him the couple’s story which, he says, he is now going to tell us.

This ‘story within a story’ begins when a 14 year old girl sees her father decapitated in a boating accident. Her father’s best friend, a forty year old doctor, is at the controls of the boat. Her mother, who is also on the boat, fishes her husband’s head out of the water and, shortly thereafter, because she cannot stop screaming, is taken to a psyche ward. The forty year old married doctor and the fourteen year old girl are left to comfort each other. One thing leads to another. Pregnant, she is sent off to a home for wayward girls to have a baby at the age of fifteen – when she wakes up, the infant has been whisked away to its new parents, the adoption having been arranged by the doctor-impregnator.

She and her mother move to another town where no one knows her history. She completes high school and college, marries an ambitious boy headed for medical school and a brilliant career. They have two daughters, live in a gated community, and she pursues a graduate degree in Russian literature. The ambitious boy has become a controlling man.

“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.”

She tries to find her lost child without success. Then, he finds her. At first, the five of them try to live together – she, her husband, their two daughters and this long-lost son of hers. It doesn’t work. She gets custody of the children. In the final section of the story, we learn that the couple at the high school play – the couple so in love, so unable to keep their hands off each other – are mother and son.

And, as I said at the beginning, Gurganus can write humor-mixed-with-horror beautifully and effectively, too. PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS is such a novel. Set in New York in the 1980’s, it centers on a group of talented young people: Hartley Mims, Jr., a Southerner who has come to New York to be a writer (and who I took to be the Gurganus stand-in); Robert Christian Gustafson, an Iowa preacher’s son, a composer, and an object of desire who knows everyone of interest in the city, and “Alabama” Byrnes, an artist who has thrown aside a debutante’s life to paint. All have very active social and sexual lives. They love and promote and support one another, and encourage each other in their creative efforts.

The book is an elegy – some call it a lovesong – to a time when New York was a mecca for such young people, vibrating with excitement and talent, full of life and happily living on a shoestring. But, of course, we know the AIDS epidemic is coming.

Gurganus treats his characters tenderly, lyrically, lovingly – but he is unstinting in telling us the truth about this terrible plague sweeping through the city. There is great sadness. There is great humor. It is a book I’ve not been able to forget.

Of  LOCAL SOULS, Gurganus’ collection of three novellas, Wells Tower wrote: “It 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. No living writer knows more about how humans matter to each other. These are tales to make us whole.”

He’s right and that’s why I have a writer’s crush on Allan Gurganus.

COMING TOMORROW:  Guest post by Carol Phillips who writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment