Occasionally shocking, consistently understated and knowing, "Local Souls" deploys three related novellas that deal with people who don't fit in. The world of Allan Gurganus' first new work of fiction in a dozen years is both familiar and eccentric.
Best known for the 1989 novel "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," Mr. Gurganus revisits its locale here. Set in the town of Falls, a fictitious rural community of some 6,800 near the real North Carolina city of Raleigh, these unusual novellas, which could stand alone but resonate well together, focus on outliers and taboos.
By Allan Gurganus
"Fear Not," the first, treats incest, tracking a woman's search for the son she was forced to give up when she was young and wayward; the woman's mode of closure is, shall we say, transgressive. "Saints Have Mothers," the bridge novella, focuses on Caitlin, the ostensibly perfect if overly risk-taking child of a woman who may be "the last person alive for whom Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' still seems great."
In "Decoy," Mr. Gurganus focuses on Doc Roper, a figure in the first novella who, to cap this curious collection, turns to the creation of wooden ducks for his second act.
The cast of characters spans the quirky and the bizarre. But it's just as all-American as the folks Sherwood Anderson brought to life in "Winesburg, Ohio" nearly a century ago.
The stories take their own good time, and "Decoy" takes a little too much. They're nevertheless largely compelling. One reason is Mr. Gurganus' style, which is conversational, sly and subversive. The second is his patience.
Even though none of the characters is so large as to be heroic, they are all absorbing, even the minor ones like Bill Mabry, the frail, obsessed narrator of "Decoy."
When it comes to style, consider how Mr. Gurganus describes a boating accident that colors "Fear Not" in writing so low-key that readers could miss its import if they were to blink. And when the novelist who narrates that novella learns the provenance of the disparately aged couple who pique his curiosity, he ponders how one apprehends disturbing truths in a passage that also speaks to Mr. Gurganus' own approach:
"I already sit imagining a hundred ways one person might tell another such a saga. So many questions live hidden in it. First, you'd gather all known facts. Once grasped, those might offer you a new way of knowing. After documenting, you must imagine instead, capturing some fraction of the costs to them, the reward to it."
Mr. Gurganus probes the innards of small-town life in these stories, but neither he nor his characters judge. Instead, they tolerate, they absorb, they adjust. "Decoy" is a fitting way to close, dealing, as it does, with human frailty, the hazards of memory, and death. While Mr. Gurganus spends too much time on Doc Roper's decoy success, the story gains enormous power when Falls is flooded, tearing apart the social fabric and forcing a sense of community where before there was none.
It also is an elegiac story about aging. Narrated by Bill Mabry, the son of Red Mabry, a rural guy who came into middle-class security thanks to a kinky town baron named Sexton, it winds down hard and moving. Giving away the ending would be to give away a secret. Mr. Gurganus -- imaginative, kind, even humorous -- builds toward that secret so skillfully, our arrival at it becomes a pact with the characters themselves.
Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News (firstname.lastname@example.org).