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April 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Every True Pleasure Is a Secret

Allan Gurganus’s Southern utopias
Photograph of Allan Gurganus by Robert Giard © Estate of Robert Giard. Courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, Connecticut

Photograph of Allan Gurganus by Robert Giard © Estate of Robert Giard. Courtesy Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, Connecticut


Every True Pleasure Is a Secret

Allan Gurganus’s Southern utopias

Discussed in this essay:

The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus, by Allan Gurganus. Liveright. 240 pages. $25.95.

Way back in the Nineties, Allan Gurganus was an extremely famous writer. His first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989), was a postmodern doorstop that became an improbable blockbuster. A mordantly comic, high-maximalist work of revisionist historical fiction weighing in at 718 pages, Widow somehow spent eight months on the New York Times bestseller list, made the Book of the Month Club, and in 1994 became a bad (and badly bowdlerized) TV movie starring Donald Sutherland, Diane Lane, and Cicely Tyson. Widow ultimately sold around four million copies. Gurganus’s next novel, however, flopped, and there hasn’t been another since. In the meantime, he’s gone quiet for long stretches, publishing occasionally in magazines and journals, sometimes alluding to a novel in progress, provisionally and tantalizingly entitled The Erotic History of a Country Baptist Church.

The Erotic History has not yet appeared, but he has published two collections of novellas, The Practical Heart (2001) and Local Souls (2013), and now an Uncollected Stories, which is easily his strongest book in twenty years. The keywords in those titles—heart, history, local, practical, erotic, soul—all but speak for themselves. Gurganus has always been fascinated with small lives and big secrets, as well as with storytelling itself. His work is funny, smutty, voice-driven, and deeply rooted in Southern traditions that it can neither condone nor wholly reject, and it distinguishes itself in part by asking simple yet fraught questions about how narratives function as forms of power. Who speaks and who listens? Who decides whose stories matter? Who has been shouted down or otherwise silenced? And who may yet have the last word?

But before we get into all that, let’s have a bit of history—or at any rate, biography—to help set the scene. Gurganus was a first-wave boomer, born in 1947 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, sixty miles northeast of Raleigh (also the birthplace of Thelonious Monk). He wanted to be a painter, but art school didn’t take. In the mid-Sixties, he tried and failed to register as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. Facing charges of draft evasion and forced to choose between the military and prison, he joined the Navy in 1966. He spent three years aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, where the ship’s library fostered a love of literature. After his service, he finished a bachelor’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College and then went on to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his teacher John Cheever sent one of his manuscripts to William Maxwell at The New Yorker. “Minor Heroism,” published in November 1974, was the first story in the magazine’s history to feature a homosexual protagonist. Gurganus was twenty-seven years old. In 1979, he went back to Sarah Lawrence, this time as faculty. The Eighties were a party until they were a crucible. When Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All was published, he was forty-two.

The titular widow is Lucy Marsden, a loquacious, freewheeling storyteller in the grand old Southern tradition, though her politics are anything but traditional. Lucy was born in the small town of Falls, North Carolina, in 1885, and at just shy of fifteen was tricked—through a combination of parental coercion and self-deception—into marrying William Marsden, a Confederate veteran thirty-six years her senior. Now, on the eve of her hundredth birthday, Lucy is the last living link not just to the late nineteenth century, when she came of age, but to the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, all of which Marsden lived through decades before Lucy was born and which she knows through his endless and endlessly self-serving stories.

Widow explores the sinuous and sinister ways in which self-delusion is used—by individuals, by the ownership classes, by entire societies—to launder horror into heroism, villains into victims, history into kitsch. It’s a novel about how an insistence on reliving the past can go hand in glove with a refusal to understand it. Gurganus takes seriously Faulkner’s notion that in the South “the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” but he refuses Faulkner’s fatalism that this must always be the case simply because it has been for so long. At the same time, the novel is winsome and quirky, and includes just enough legitimate scorn for Northern hypocrisy—factories powered by child labor, the rapacity of Sherman’s March, etc.—that it leaves itself susceptible, in the hands of a naïve or bad-faith reader, to the very sort of culture laundering that it was written to resist.

After the runaway success of Widow, expectations for Gurganus’s second novel were sky-high. Plays Well with Others, which was published in 1997, is set in the same decade as Lucy Marsden’s centennial birthday but concerns itself with people whose lives she could scarcely have imagined. Technically speaking, Plays Well is the shell of an unpublished memoir, The Voyage As I Saw It (1980–1995), by one Hartley Mims Jr., a gay fiction writer who, like Gurganus, lived in Manhattan through the worst period of the AIDS epidemic. Hartley’s ragtag crew of mostly Southern and Midwestern transplants (what we might today call his chosen family) have come to the city to pursue their dreams, their ambitions, and one another—in bathhouses, cafés, and art galleries. When the mysterious illnesses start cropping up, rumors and fear run rampant while the political class remains contemptuous and neglectful. Both Gurganus and Mims spent their thirties the way most people spend their twilight years: sitting beside sickbeds and deathbeds, consumed by both survivor’s guilt and survivor’s relief. When we meet him, Hartley has (again, like the author) left New York and returned home to take stock of his losses and mourn his friends, his generation, a whole way of life. For Hartley, as for Lucy Marsden—and for Bryan, the narrator of several stories in Gurganus’s 1990 collection, White People, including “Minor Heroism”home is Falls, North Carolina. Falls is a fictional town, but Gurganus has said that it is based on Rocky Mount.

If Widow was in part a quarrel with Faulkner, its prose rhythms, ribaldry, and acid comedy nevertheless owe quite a bit more to Gurganus’s teachers, Grace Paley (at Sarah Lawrence) and Stanley Elkin (at Iowa), two hilarious, streetwise Jews dedicated to writing rooted in vernacular voice. The same is true of Plays Well, but without the long shadow of Southern history cast over everything, it’s easier to see. Plays Well is half the length of Widow, but just as maximal in its storytelling, and where Widow left room for misreadings of its politics, Plays Well gives no quarter. The opening chapter is called “Thirty Dildoes,” and it begins, “There are just two kinds of people in the world: those who will help you and those who won’t.”

Or consider this passage, in which Hartley describes his friend Robert’s parents coming to stay at their son’s apartment:

The Gustafsons could not know how often and successfully their gorgeous charitable boy had entertained in this bed. They would not recognize the names of the many models and film stars of both sexes who had achieved out-of-body bodily experiences here with the help of their cheerful, guiltless Swedish-American boy.

This youngest Eagle Scout in Cedar Rapids history had, around 1980, right here, fucked a Rolling Stone, then his wife, and then once more the Stone, whose rocky butt was surely gathering no moss whatsoever. Here, Robert made history, and most everybody else. He enabled many stars to use these four posts, isometrically. Plaques of bronze have been attached to vessels far less culturally seminal.

The uprights were topped by carved pineapples, huge owl-sized things like phallic hand grenades. Robert had lovingly recalled how his mother, on seeing pineapples anywhere, could never refrain from saying, with the sealed sententiousness of someone thoroughly middle class, “Pineapples symbolize hospitality.” Looking up at these four, I thought, Yes, alas.

In case it isn’t clear, I love this novel. Its swerves from comedy to tragedy are even more vertiginous than those in Widow, and though Gurganus sometimes succumbs to broad-brush generalizations or you-had-to-be-there breathlessness, he is as precise as a surgeon when depicting emotional turmoil, the microclimates of envy, admiration, betrayal, and desire that fuel artistic friendship—and how that same fuel is always threatening to blow it apart. Both Widow and Plays Well are interested in retrospection and grief, in the art of memory and in memorial art. Both books are also about queer utopias: their necessity and inevitable ephemerality. In Widow, these temporary autonomous zones blossom in foxholes and bathrooms and tree houses, places where adolescents are able—for a day or an hour or a moment—to explore their desires with a freedom freed from the need to name itself. In Plays Well with Others, New York is the temporary autonomous zone and nobody has to repress much of anything. The characters are doomed not by cultural hegemony but natural disaster and the depraved indifference of the state.

Unfortunately, Plays Well foundered. By the time it appeared, in the late Nineties—a reactionary decade that flattered itself a progressive one—the AIDS novel was regarded as something of a tired trope, particularly by some of the very artists who had experienced the devastation of those years and were (rightly or wrongly) ready to move on. Gay literature had survived the plague. It was also now a large (not to say diverse) enough category that it no longer had to fight for mere visibility. A landmark anthology, The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, edited by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell, had been published in 1994, the year after Angels in America hit Broadway and Dale Peck debuted with Martin and John. There was room for serious disagreement and debate over aesthetics, among other things, as well as a lot of pent-up aggression from critics who felt they’d been forced to bite their tongues. Here’s Robert Plunket winding himself up to pan Plays Well in the New York Times:

A whole lot of novels have been written, and for a long time many of us devoured every one. . . . Dare you give a bad review to somebody who may very well be on his deathbed? The answer is, no, of course you don’t. You find your way around it.

But times change.

Now look: I’m half Gurganus’s age and I’m not gay, so far be it from me to try to ref this fight, especially twenty-five years after the fact. But I will say that if you read through the contemporaneous reviews of Plays Well, and consider them in aggregate, what you find are a lot of critics not simply lodging complaints about an admittedly divisive novel, but going out of their way to be cruel as a way of asserting their freedom—finally—to stop toeing the company line. “In its celebration of camaraderie rather than of bland assimilation,” Thomas Mallon wrote in The New Yorker in 2013, “the book now feels more radical than it did during the political-medical emergency that gave rise to it.” Suffice, I hope, to say that Plays Well is vastly underrated and ripe for rediscovery.

The majority of Gurganus’s work since Plays Well—sixteen stories and novellas in total, spread across three collections—has been set in his touchstone town of Falls. Local Souls even included a lovingly hand-drawn map of the place, complete with the homes of notable citizens and the sites of significant incidents. Gurganus was paying cheeky homage to Faulkner—there is a crude map of the town of Jefferson in the back of my copy of Absalom, Absalom!—but also poking a bit of fun at himself, because Falls has never had the same persistent reality as your average fictional locale.

When one thinks of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Eudora Welty’s Morgana, or for that matter of Stephen King’s Castle Rock or George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, one understands that their histories are consistent and consequential: the locals know one another and the events in a given story are factored into subsequent stories. The reason Faulkner’s map is at the back of Absalom, Absalom! is that a single glance at its landscape of tragedy would spoil the novel’s plot, along with those of at least two other books also set in Jefferson. Gurganus isn’t interested in that sort of worldbuilding. Falls has a river running through it, a few churches of rival denominations, a black neighborhood, and the nursing home where Lucy Marsden lives, but beyond that there’s little in the way of canon. Despite the preponderance of stories set there, one rarely gets the sense that any given character has met any other.

For all its Podunk mundanity, Falls is a semi-mythic realm given to both time-defying constancy and iterative renewal, like a cluster of stem cells or a black box theater. At some point after The Practical Heart, the River Tar was rechristened the River Lithium, which is how it appears on the map in Local Souls. Nobody in the book notes when or why this change was made; it seems that as far as they are concerned, now that it is, it must be the case that it always was.

A Martyrdom, by Allan Gurganus © The artist. Courtesy Power Plant Gallery, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

A Martyrdom, by Allan Gurganus © The artist. Courtesy Power Plant Gallery, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Despite the odds and sods vibe of the title, the Uncollected Stories has heft and deftness, tonal unity and thematic range. Of its nine stories, six are set in Falls. “He’s at the Office” has a fablelike quality, with hints of the Cheever of “The Swimmer” or The Magic Barrel–era Malamud. The narrator’s father, a World War II veteran traumatized by his service, throws himself so fully into his job selling wholesale office supplies that when he later develops dementia, his job is the only thing about himself he can remember. Eventually, his wife and son set up a fake office inside the house to which he dutifully reports every day.

The portrait of the emotionally cauterized father, prone to violent outbursts as his faculties fail him, echoes both Bryan’s father in White People and Captain Marsden in Widow. A scene in this story in which the father, as a young groom, allows his honeymoon to be disrupted by a business acquaintance draws heavily on a scene in Widow in which Marsden ignores Lucy at dinner to trade war stories with another Confederate vet. But where Widow’s judgment of Marsden is that he is finally irredeemable—a poison to be drawn out, a rabid dog to be put down—in “He’s at the Office” there is real pathos and even a sort of redemption for the father, who does not know how to be anything other than the uniform (here a hat and briefcase) that he no longer fills.

The ostentatiously titled “Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC)—Light Lunch Inclusive” is a sly slow burner. Like most of the narrators in this book, Mrs. Evelyn du Pre Wells—an older woman who claims a recent conversion to liberal politics—speaks directly to us. She is a volunteer docent and we are on her tour. Evelyn complains about the heat, teases revealing the secret recipe for the town’s famous chicken salad, and is solicitous if condescending to a young black girl who stands near the front of the group. Haltingly, Evelyn comes around to sharing Falls’s history of lynchings, including one that she witnessed as a girl. This is unsanctioned history, not part of the official tour.

At first it seems like Gurganus is indulging a certain sort of liberal fantasy about the inevitability and relative ease of historical reckoning. I began to wonder whether he’d fallen into the same perverse “innocence” that had, despite his own best efforts, helped make Widow a hit among some of the very factions it takes to task. Could Gurganus have become one of those smug liberals huffing Russiagate fumes from the paper bag of MSNBC and retweeting West Wing screen caps? Perish the thought! But I need not have worried. In the later pages of the story, Evelyn has a meltdown. Now that she’s unburdened herself of the trauma of witnessing racial violence, she’s a bit put out by her audience’s reaction, namely the implication that the South is a pretty fucked-up place and that the lynching itself might be more horrific than the fact that she had to witness it. After accusing the tour group of being “here to suck culture from us, the way black snakes put fangs into Momma’s white hens’ eggs,” she refunds everyone’s money and tells us to go back where we came from—i.e., the North. The message is pointed: beware the whiplash of quick conversions and never mistake fervency for depth of commitment.

The eleven stories in White People were labeled with their dates of composition, which ranged from 1972 to 1989. The result was a first collection that reads like a career retrospective. Though the stories in the Uncollected aren’t marked the same way, the period they cover is similarly broad. The oldest story, “The Mortician Confesses,” was published in Granta in 1993. “Fourteen Feet of Water in My House” appeared in this magazine in 2006, then was revised and expanded into the second section of “Decoy,” a novella included in Local Souls. The most recent story, “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” is a historical fiction of plague and panic serendipitously published in The New Yorker early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor” is one of the stories that doesn’t take place in Falls. The unnamed narrator is looking back on his days as a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Iowa, tasked with scrounging “far-flung Salvation Army thrifts and rural junk shops” for “folk manifestations.” In an antique shop in La Verne, Illinois, he notices a painting of a man about his own age—“His face was handsome if both blank and sad, hound-earnest”—who turns out to be Frederick Markus Petrie, the titular doctor, who tried to save La Verne during the cholera epidemic of 1849. The narrator tells us that he has owned the painting for fifty years but never knew how much of the story of its provenance, as told to him that day in the antique shop, was true. It has only just now occurred to him to google Petrie’s name. In the online archive of La Verne’s local paper he finds an editorial in which Petrie lays out guidelines for preventing the spread of cholera. Some of his advice could have been pulled from the CDC website this morning.

Gurganus includes the complete text of Petrie’s article at the end of the story. The gesture reminds me of Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” in which the official account of a doomed uprising on a slave ship is the last thing the reader sees. In “Benito Cereno,” all the key details in the official account have been either redacted or falsified; its function is not to establish truth but to reinscribe the revolutionary rupture of the revolt into a system of meaning that the colonial-capitalist bureaucracy can comprehend. In this context, the language of truth is not simply untranslatable but illegible in the original. In the Gurganus story, Petrie’s guidelines aren’t ironized—or lamentable—because they are false, but because they are true. All anyone needed to do, then or now, was follow them. The rebel slaves on the ship had a righteous cause and a sound strategy; they were undone by the impossibility of finding a safe place to land. What good, after all, is a freedom that remains forever fugitive? The citizens of La Verne, on the other hand, turn against the doctor’s policies only after he himself gets sick while treating them. After welcoming him as a hero, they ostracize him and reject his advice. Cholera tears through La Verne like COVID-19 through the Dakotas after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

As “Country Doctor” ends with a newspaper article, so “The Mortician Confesses” begins with one. A short article in the Raleigh News & Observer, about a mortician who pleads guilty to having sex with a corpse, is quoted in full. But the real confession of the title is not the mortician’s, but rather that of the deputy sheriff who catches him in the act. The main body of the story is the deputy’s account of the night in question, tape-recorded so that his secretary can transcribe it. He talks candidly and at length, trusting her to edit it into the official document it will eventually become. Again we are asked to consider the gap between official and unofficial forms of knowledge, and how easily truth can be lost when it falls into the gray space that separates them. As it happens, the deputy’s secretary is also his wife, so he’s aware that every word he utters on this grim subject is one more that she can never unhear. He makes his report while locked in his office as a press gaggle surrounds the building: there’s a CNN truck and several newspaper reporters, which is why it was significant that the story began by excerpting a Raleigh paper instead of the local Falls Herald Traveler. The lurid nature of the crime has pierced the privacy of the town, exposing it to the outrage and laughter of strangers across the whole state and country. By the end of the story, the deputy is wondering aloud whether they ought to pack up and retire to Florida.

Florida, as it happens, is the setting for my favorite story in the Uncollected. It’s a comic masterpiece in the vein of the wildest set pieces in Plays Well and Widow, and why Gurganus passed up the opportunity to call this collection “My Heart Is a Snake Farm” I will never understand. The story, which begins at the end of the Fifties, is narrated by Esther, a school librarian and “unmarried woman of a certain age” who has lived her whole life in Toledo, Ohio, but decides to light out for the Sunshine State upon retirement. She stops on a whim at the Los Parnassus Palms motel, and likes it so much she becomes a long-term tenant and eventually its owner, though she doesn’t rent out the rooms. Esther, not just a spinster but a virgin, is flustered but intrigued when a charismatic huckster named Buck comes to town with three ex-wives, buys the property across the street from the motel, and opens up a reptile-themed amusement park and petting zoo that may or may not double as a brothel.

Buck let each visiting child feed one gator apiece. Only the bravest dared. . . . Smelling chow, gators hissed like gas leaks. Large white mouths opened. Seemed it was always time to feed the gators. Anything could be tasty. Loose luncheon meats, crates of limes, you name it—they ate each thing before deciding.

Esther is inexperienced, but she’s no Helen Lovejoy. She is charmed by Buck’s outré arrangements and the gimcrack charm of what she comes to think of as the Reptile Coliseum, since it stands across the road from her Parnassus. Eventually, she will find herself sitting on the park’s board and—just once, but memorably—on Buck’s face.

Though all the sex in “My Heart Is a Snake Farm” is heterosexual, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it is heteronormative, aka “straight.” Buck is at the center of a polycule whose other members are all (maybe) sex workers. Esther achieves her first orgasm only as a senior citizen; then she decides to hang on to her hymen, though she knows Buck would happily relieve her of it if she asked. The snake farm opens just after Kennedy’s election and then disappears overnight a few months before his assassination, a brief, secret Sixties that came and went before the part of the Sixties that history remembers was even a gleam in Jerry Garcia’s eye. It is another queer utopia, unremembered except by those to whom it meant the world, because to them it was the world. “Every true pleasure is a secret,” says the narrator of “Adult Art,” a story in White People. Esther, like Lucy Marsden and Hartley Mims Jr., would know exactly what he means. What are utopias, after all, but history’s exceptions and rejects, its stolen kisses and secret passages and unutterable names? If these things could be recuperated into the master narrative they’d enjoy more longevity, sure, but at that point they’d no longer be utopias—they’d just be history.

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “What It Means to Be Alive,” appeared in the June 2019 issue.

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