Stories hint at Gurganus' development as writer

February 10, 1991|By Frank Levering

WHITE PEOPLE.

Allan Gurganus.

Knopf.

252 pages. $21.95. In 1989, "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," an epifirst novel by Allan Gurganus, was published. Bridging roughly 140 years of Southern history, "Widow" told all with such sustained intensity and elan that one wondered what Mr. Gurganus possibly could have left in his creative coffers.

That question is answered in "White People," a collection of short fiction written between 1974 and 1989. Although not without flaws, these 11 stories display much the same range in tone, theme and inventive storytelling found in the novel. At the same time, because three stories are explicitly autobiographical, "White People" offers an intriguing glimpse into the development of one of the most engaging writers from the modern South.

Fictionalized portraits of one's own family run the risk of being too idealized or too judgmental. In stories about his relationship as child and man with his grandparents, parents and brother, Mr. Gurganus steers a poignant middle course.

Most memorable, perhaps, in "Minor Heroism," a story that centers on Mr. Gurganus and his father. The elder Gurganus -- Richard in the story -- is a strikingly handsome World War II hero now adrift as an insurance salesman and country clubber, woefully out of touch with his artistic older son. Deftly shifting points of view between father and son over a 20-year span, Mr. Gurganus dramatizes estrangement born not of hostility but of radically divergent values.

The author's native Rocky Mount, N.C. -- fictionalized as Falls -- also is the setting for "Blessed Assurance," a story that explores race consciousness in the late '40s through the eyes of a 19-year-old funeral insurance salesman. Jerry, the narrator, is white, the financially ambitious son of cotton mill workers. His customers are black.

As in "Confederate Widow Tells All" -- also set in Falls -- Mr. Gurganus is concerned with how whites who share a small town with blacks come to terms with racism both subtle and obvious. As in "Widow," he depicts race relations comically as well as tragically -- to the blacks, the earnest young man who comes knocking at their doors is an "assurance" salesman. Jerry abandons his attempts to correct them. "These old ladies seemed to be banking on a last sure thing," he observes. "Assurance meant heavenly pin money. Shouldn't it have tipped them off? Buying certainty from a confused, fresh-faced Kid, nineteen, and about as poor as them?"

In two stories Mr. Gurganus duplicates his feat in "Confederate Widow Tells All" of writing convincingly from a woman's point of view. In "ItHad Wings," an old widow -- a retired saleswoman -- sees a young male angel fall unconscious into her back yard. After helping him fly again, she resumes washing dishes, thinking, "He flew off stronger. I really egged him on. Like anybody would've, really. Still, it was me. I'm not just somebody in a house. I'm not just somebody alone in a house."

In another story, "Adult Art," also set in Falls, Mr. Gurganus assumes the voice of the superintendent of schools, a married man with two sons, who's having an erotic tryst with a younger man. The results are both revelatory of a certain kind of clandestine gay sensibility and wickedly funny.

Only one of these stories is badly flawed -- the farcical set piece, "Nativity, Caucasian," about a birth that interrupts a bridge party. The story goes nowhere worth going; and Mr. Gurganus' usual empathy for women turns preachy and obvious.

One further bone to pick: Although the narrators differ in most of the stories told first person, at times there's sameness in the prose style in rhythm and phrasing. Who's telling the stories: Mr. Gurganus or his characters?

But "White People" nonetheless is an enchanting collection. Together with "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," it comprises a remarkable body of work by a writer yet in his mid-40s.

Mr. Levering, a writer living in Virginia, is co-writing a book on simplifying one's life.

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