Local Souls, by Allan Gurganus. New York, New York: Liveright. 352 pages. $15.95, paper.
Despite the fact that I have lived in the South for eight years, I would never consider myself “a Southerner,”—not out of the fact that I have any shame in making this statement: I love my adopted hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama & fully embrace its quirks as charm. When friends of mine from north of the Mason-Dixon comes to visit, they often find themselves attempting to piece together the various elements of the Southern existence: white pick-up trucks with old ladders in the back, monstrous sorority houses with perfectly manicured lawns, football as religion & religion as RELIGION, macaroni & side counting as a vegetable at a meat-and-three, every y’all, every might could. Folks return satisfied in their pre-conceptions: their check list confirmed—did you drink sweet tea can be loosely translated to did you go on Space Mountain if the geography was only slightly more skewed.
I do not call myself a Southerner because to be a Southerner contains facets that can only be obtained by birthright: that despite a type of immersion that is not afforded to most, I still have the option to run home to autumn weather, to have Christmas snow, to take the train into the City.
As a result, Allan Gurganus’ Local Souls dances an interesting line for me: in one sense, it is a beautiful capturing of what lives exist in this Southern town, yet it has its moments where it makes the reader seem a bit voyeuristic, which, I understand is a difficult thing to avoid when writing exclusively about place, especially a setting such as the South, which has been romanticized, re-appropriated, gussied up & dusted down more than just about any region. Local Souls consists of three novellas: Fear Not, Saints Have Mothers, & Decoy, all of which exist in the same universe, there’s the doctor’s wife who is overwhelmed by her societal duties & chooses to go back to school, the keeping up of adequacies, the bourbon toasts. The mother fearing the worst for her daughter’s desire to go on a mission trip to Africa & the falseness of mourning. The man for which the “small town,” is actually “the big city.” The doctor returning to Falls after his time in higher academia. The prose is quirky & quaint, reflective & full of idioms. In a description of one of a grandmother, the narrator remarks:
Ice slept in white gloves full of white cold cream to “save my hands.” Saved for what, Ice never said.
These small anecdotes flush out the town of Falls as a multifaceted thing: something that is alive with things other than the focuses of the stories—there are references to greeters at Home Depots, there is a strange obsession with the Internet, perhaps to show that there is a world that exists beyond North Carolina; that people come from elsewhere, have gone to universities in different states, have published poetry in The Atlantic, but somehow have found themselves here.
To understand the South, we must understand that the South is in love with patchwork: the obvious nod that Gurganus makes with the creation of Falls, North Carolina, of course, is to Faulkner & his mythological county: two rivers on either side with the county seat smack in the middle—a cauldron of sad family mayhem & kudzu, a hand-drawn map letting us know where these good country folk gone strange lay their contemplative heads. It should then come as no surprise that there is a love of cartography in Gurganus’ Local Souls: a stringing together of portraits & landscapes to create something that somehow gives us a concept of what life is as a whole—a sum of its parts.
This concept of small time life via mosaic is not a new one for Gurganus—his first collection, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was the re-telling of a life lived: an oral history filled with various tales & snapshots of stories passed down from the titular widow’s late husband, often buttressed against her own experiences as the South congeals, splits apart, & attempts to sew itself back to the Union. It jumps & ducks & weaves in the way that a grandmother tells stories; it’s less about the linear scope of things & more about how all of these great yarns stick together to make something messy with expertise. Cornbread salad. Mississippi Mud Pie.
There is a sleekness to Local Souls that Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All would’ve found awkward. While we still have the first-person narrative ramble at certain points, the concept of history & origin isn’t dwelled upon here: the closest thing we get is that the narrator of Fear Not is a Civil War novelist who decides to spend his time documenting the life of a former high school belle. The sprawl seems a little too stylized—whereas having the benefit of an almost magical storyteller in Widow allowed for some sweet charm that certainly established the ethos of the entire project, this is very much Gurganus’ book—in that sense, it is very much a “Southern Writer Writing About The South.”
I certainly don’t think this is a bad thing: as I stated earlier, I am a “Northern Writer Living In The South Writing About A Southern Writer Writing About The South,” which does not exactly lend credibility to this review, but there are moments here that seem too cute & too woven into this Southern archetype. I don’t necessarily know that this is Gurganus’ fault: to write about the South is to acknowledge the South as something different—that this is a place that uses the phrase “local souls,” liberally, that there is a great flood that comes along & wipes everything out as in Decoy.
I think that Gurganus is aware of the humor here: of unhappy wives & unhappy mothers & unhappy doctors trying to replace the beloved olde-towne M.D. who wrote “prescription IOUs.” Of privilege & its problems. Those who are from the South might take a look at these moments & laugh: a winking nod to the bake sales at First Baptist, or the fact that everyone in the book needs bourbon & Woody Guthrie to get through the worst of it, but I can’t help but feel that this is a book for the tourist—for the folks who come to visit that are excited when I take them out to breakfast & the walls are covered with paintings of Paul “Bear” Bryant (they are) & our waitress is named Dixie (she is). Upon reading Local Souls was my hope that Falls, North Carolina would feel like a fascinating & unique creation: rooted in its Southernness & kitsch, but also strangely unique—that the souls here were truly local. Instead, I fear that it is presented as an “Anytown, Dixieland, USA,” that Falls, North Carolina is exactly like Columbus, Georgia & Columbus, Mississippi.
It is for this reason that I wish that Falls existed: that you could read Local Souls to find the beauty within, & then go there—to see Friends School & Falls High, to drink on porches in Riverside. Instead, drive. Drive from Allan Gurganus’ Falls, North Carolina to Faulkner’s Jefferson, Mississippi. You’ll cross dozens upon dozens of county lines: Autagua & Baldwin, Winston & Yancey. It is through this you’ll become a traveler of Falls, instead of a tourist. During your jaunt, stop in Tuscaloosa—we’ll have ourselves some breakfast & I’ll introduce you to this slice of South the best that this Yankee can.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of So You Know It’s Me, a series of Tuscaloosa Missed Connections, Level End, a collection of lyric essays about video game boss battles, & Leave Luck to Heaven, an ode to 8-bit Nintendo games.