When Captain Marsden dies in Allan Gurganus's hugely popular first novel, Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, he's "calling for maps." The first thing you see when you begin Local Souls is a rough, hand-drawn map of Falls, N.C., home to Marsden--and the characters of this thoroughly enjoyable collection of three novellas.
Start top left, at Falls High. In "Fear Not," our narrator is sitting in the audience to watch his godson play a pie customer in the school's production of Sweeney Todd when a very un-Falls-like couple sits next to him--handsome, confident, "lion-kingly." He must find out all about them. A year later, the resulting tale includes a decapitated head and a 14-year old girl who gets pregnant by the owner of the motorboat that killed her father and gives up the baby. It's all very Amelie-like: the pace, tone, the amazing coincidences, the innocence, the humor mixed with sorrow and the "inexorable, arbitrary natural force" of fate. Our narrator has tried to "breathe life into these local souls," he says, but "we can only choose to bless them."
For "Saints Have Mothers," we move to the bottom of the map to read about the Mulray family, especially Caitlin. Her loving, proud mom tells us she's "one amazing little girl" who gives her mother's shoes to the poor and her school lunches to hungry kids. As a teenager, she goes to Africa to help people. Then her mother receives a call: Caitlin is missing, believed dead. What Gurganus does with this very twisting tale about a mother's love echoes the great interior monologue poets of the past whose work reveals the teller not the tale.
Next, we go to the map's top right-hand corner, Riverside, the best neighborhood, to Doc Roper's house. "Decoy" is narrated by his friend Bill Mabry, who lives on the other side of the Lithium River. Old Doc is kind and reliable, the "last physician who forgot to send you your annual bill." Doc's retiring, but something much bigger is coming to Falls--the "smaller the town, the bigger the event looms." This last novella is a powerful inquiry into fathers and carved ducks.
Here are finely rendered portraits--and, behind the faces, fascinating stories. Listen to the voices, so pitch perfect, the words, oh so readable. And Falls, home to the fallen; it's on the map. Come visit. --Tom Lavoie
Shelf Talker: Another outstanding glimpse of Falls, N.C.--Gurganus's own Winesburg, Ohio--and its souls, beautifully rendered in a sweet Southern evening's prose.