FICTION: Three novellas explore themes of class, accomplishment and envy.
The pleasures of Allan Gurganus’ “Local Souls” are pretty much the pleasures of fiction, period: the satisfactions of the tale and the surprise of the phrase, insights into the human condition and portraits from a particular place, a sharp sense of the physical world and a freshened awareness of the pulls and pains of social class. Pick a page and you’ll find a sentence to love. “Water’s pleasure’s so acute it seems a test.” Or a woman who realizes she has been “decorating time instead of claiming it.”
The book — Gurganus’ fifth — is the first set in Falls, N.C., since his bestselling debut, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” It’s fittingly titled “Local Souls,” but this collection of three novellas also could be called “Empty Nests.” The book begins, “Everybody looks better singing, especially fifteen year olds.” And what follows is infused with the hope we attach to gifted youth — with boys whose biggest challenge is “which evolving skill to neglect first” and with girls who have to “rush off and impress another continent.”
The novellas are told by those who live in the shadows of such brightness. The first is narrated by a writer who’s written famously of the Civil War — that struck me as an off note — but it’s really about a former high school golden girl whose job is now to “curate their girls, her clubs and the house” in a gated community. The second is told by the mother of the girl who had to rush off to impress another continent. This mother published a poem in the Atlantic at 19. “To compensate for my own lost life, how beautiful and gifted would my children have to be?”
The final novella orbits another prodigy, sixth in his class at Yale, returned to doctor the local souls. Here, the narrator is a lifelong neighbor, someone who still thinks of himself as a newcomer decades after his family moved to town from the country. The relationship here — more than a man crush, less than an obsession — deftly personalizes class issues. And good for Gurganus for directly taking on the envy of charismatic houses and luckier lives and its sometimes inspiring, often corrosive effects.
The book’s charm sometimes slackens into chattiness. You wish the first novella started later, the second ended earlier and the third was compressed to a short story. Even for a book where class and accomplishment are themes, the multiple references to elite colleges start to grate. Between the jaunty prose, the colorful town and the rampant overachieving, a few patches get a little “Gilmore Girls.”
Not that we don’t love hanging with Lorelei and Rory. Just not when the themes are this brave and the best prose is this dazzling.