The Denver Post
November 4, 2001
By Dylan Foley
Novelist Allan Gurganus' fictional town of Falls, N.C., is peopled with double agents, outcasts and troubled souls trying to get along in life. In "The Practical Heart," his new collection of four novellas, Gurganus explores obsessions, sexual awakenings and what people will sacrifice for the ones they love.
"I wanted a sense of how unified we are by our different obsessions," said Gurganus, discussing his book from his home outside Chapel Hill. "I am interested in putting people in ethical dilemmas and seeing what they would and wouldn't do." Gurganus is the author of the novels "Plays Well With Others" and the best-selling "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," as well as the story collection "White People."
The lyrical and moving novellas in "The Practical Heart" are about the outsider in all of us. "We are all outsiders," says Gurganus. "However much we identify with majority politics and the ruling class, each of us is carrying around an interior fugitive.
"In every Archibald Leach, there is a Cary Grant. This kind of doubleness interests me - how necessary disguises are, and how many languages we speak in a day."
The title story involves a 19th-century Scottish spinster who becomes obsessed with being painted by the artist John Singer Sargent. This story is based very loosely on Gurganus' Scottish ancestors, who were trapped in Chicago when one of them was injured in a streetcar accident.
Gurganus embellished the family's story by making his Great Aunt Muriel fixate on being immortalized in great art. Muriel, an impoverished piano teacher, rationalizes the great expense of a Singer Sargent portrait: "His immortality was assured, and yours with it, your traditions with it, and his, with Art's own." After the fictional Muriel's death, the painting is donated to the Art Institute of Chicago.
In "Preservation News," the focus is Tad Worth, a young man who saves buildings and lonely people. It is a witty and sad tale, in which Tad's passion for rescuing old houses forestalls his own death. "This story began when I heard that the whole Washington, D.C., preservation hierarchy was devastated by HIV," said Gurganus.
"The irony for me was for a person devoting his life to preservation to die young," he said. "I try not to create victims. The story is tragic because Tad dies of AIDS, but it is a poetic story about how valuable a civic-minded, "out' and psychically healthy gay man can be to the culture."
Gurganus also explores the sacrifices people make for the ones they love. In "Saint Monster," Clyde is a 1950s traveling clothes salesman with a philandering wife. Every Sunday, he drives his son around the state to put Bibles in roadside motels. It is a moving picture of a doomed father-son duo. "Motels could shelter your six-week nervous breakdown," says Clyde's son Meadows. "Motels permitted suicide. Motels could mean roadside second chances."
" 'Saint Monster' is really about how much a person would do to save another," said Gurganus. "That becomes the family connection - whom do you love and whom don't you love, and what you would do to save your beloved."
The fourth novella, "He's One, Too," is about a town hero who is turned into a pariah when he makes sexual overtures to a teenage boy.
Born in North Carolina, the 54-year-old Gurganus came north to study painting in Philadelphia, then was "kidnapped" by the Navy to the Vietnam War for three years. He studied writing at various universities and wound up in New York City. "I was there for 15 years," said Gurganus. "I supported myself as a sperm donor and by teaching at Sarah Lawrence - my night and day jobs."
Gurganus thought he would never go back to North Carolina. After his 1989 success with "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," Gurganus decided he had to return. He moved back nine years ago.
"As a writer and as a person, the South has always been indispensable to me," he said. "I've managed to come back as an "out' gay man, living in a little village of 5,000 people, and being completely accepted. I've never had a cross burned on my lawn. It's been wonderful."
The four novellas are permeated with ghosts and memories of the dead. Tad sees ghosts when he is preserving his last house. And the son in "Saint Monster" feels the presence of his dead father. "In a way, all these stories are ghost stories," said Gurganus.
"I'm a believer in ghosts. I've had face-to-face confrontations with translucent people. I know that such things exist."
Gurganus' next novel will be about the erotic history of a Southern Baptist church in Falls. "All four of my previous books have taken place in Falls," he said. "My hope is that the reader will have a map in their mind, the way I do. I can draw the town square, where the churches are. When I am stuck for a subject, all I have to do is walk down an imaginary street, look in a door and see who is there."
After "The Practical Heart" novella was published in Harper's Magazine several years ago, a major exhibition of Sargent's work was held in New York, and his reputation as a 19th-century master was rehabilitated. "I have always felt he was underrated, and I feel that I am part of his revival," said Gurganus. He added that the fictional Sargent portrait of Muriel "was my gift to my family."
Not long ago, Gurganus was contacted by the woman in charge of the art reproductions department at the Art Institute of Chicago. "She said that they get 20 to 40 requests a year for the portrait of my great aunt," said Gurganus.
"The fact that I convinced readers to look for that portrait, " chuckled Gurganus, "is the greatest tribute to my aunt, an irony she would appreciate."
For Gurganus, his imaginary portrait of Great Aunt Muriel has gained him some literary immortality.
(THE PRACTICAL HEART By Allan Gurganus, Knopf, 324 pages, $25)