Set mostly in fictional Falls, N.C., the wise and funny tales in "The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus" previously appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's and in top literary quarterlies.
After being startled by a life-changing experience, a flood, for instance, or a disease, Gurganus' characters open their hearts. Some fall in love. Others confess what they've lost or never had. Still others, such as the fussy guide in "The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC) — Light Lunch Inclusive," reveal themselves in unflattering ways. Whatever the situation, the characters in the collection begin to appreciate others. "There is another world," the book's epigraph reads, "but it is in this one."
In "The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor," a graduate student completing a university project matches wits with Theodosia, a "crookbacked" antiques dealer in La Verne, Ill. By giving him, free of charge, a portrait of a doctor from the 1849 cholera epidemic, she wins the night. Decades later, the gift comforts the former student toward whom Theodosia had softened for "nosing out this far from Moline" one Friday evening. Her memory together with the doctor's portrait prove healing to the student, now a collector of antiques.
If sentiments seem easily derived in a few stories, in the best ones, mysteries like Theodosia's illuminate larger truths about love, loyalty and the persistence of memory. Most of Gurganus' stories are filled with hope.
In "Unassisted Human Flight," a newspaper reporter surmises that "the girders of the mysterious are what really hold us all in place." Leaving Falls to begin work at the Richmond paper, he sees in the red dawn the beauty and mystery of the town he's taken for granted. His last assignment? To update a story about a boy who flew a mile through the air. What other mysteries has he overlooked during five years in Falls?
"We grant ourselves so little daily hope," he muses. "Meanwhile, barely noticing, we've already managed wonders."
In the rollicking "The Mortician Confesses," a deputy sheriff discovers a funeral home employee in a compromising position. "Babies we all are when you get right down to it," the deputy philosophizes. "We think we know decency and what local folks will do to other locals, but the majority of us good Christians ain't got hint number one concerning what goes on 'behind closed doors.' "
One hilarious observation or action follows another. Five times Deputy Cutcheon restates his theory about innocence, "Babies we all are," punctuating his account with "Lordbepraised."
The humor here and in "The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour" largely depends on the narrators' dialects and their excessive behavior.
In "My Heart Is a Snake Farm," a retired school librarian from Toledo finds emotional fulfillment in Florida running a motel. Buck, the drinker she falls for, says "pervides" instead of "provides." He also gives off "a smell like flint, ham, and 3-in-One Motor Oil." He pleases her enough, however, that she turns her heart, and the motel's neon sign, from NO to VACANCY.
Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis. In spring 2021, the University of Wisconsin Press will publish his short-story collection, "The Blondes of Wisconsin."
The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus
By: Allan Gurganus.
Publisher: Liveright, 256 pages, $25.95.