Allan Gurganus is good for the mind and the soul.
His brand new collection, The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus, offers nine smart and thoroughly entertaining tales that overflow with news of the spirit. His characters are far from perfect – but Gurganus loves them, warts and all, depicting them with a radical dignity. As they often make us laugh out loud, his stories show us how we ought to think and feel toward one another when guided by our better angels.
Since his breakthrough novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Gurganus has been known as a master of voice – he lets his characters tell us who they are by how they speak; their words are windows to thoughts and feelings. Only a gifted writer who cares enough to imagine the lives of others could accomplish this. Vanessa Hua observes in her New York Times review of The Uncollected Stories:
His narrators urgently want to say their piece, perhaps because they’re underdogs, used to being misunderstood, dismissed or ignored. “Words were never my strongest suit,” says the hapless deputy sheriff of “The Mortician Confesses.” “A person needs college to explain this mess.”
Even those with the quietest of lives can be heroic, whether a retired grammar school librarian who revives a showman in the bawdy “My Heart Is a Snake Farm” or a retired insurance agent who rescues his neighbors in a flood in the wistful “Fourteen Feet of Water in My House.”
Many of his characters exhibit uncommon heroism. The family of the man who is losing his mental faculties in “He’s at the Office” finds a clever way to put their loved one at ease.
The narrator of “A Fool for Christmas,” an overweight, unmarried owner of a mall pet shop, goes out of his way to help a pregnant young stranger who has no one else to turn to because that’s what you should do.
The volume’s most resonant story, “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” centers on a small Iowa town during a cholera epidemic in 1849. A new doctor arrives to treat the sick. At first, he is lionized, but soon he is demonized as many continue to perish. Although the story is filled with small-minded characters, it is the doctor’s broadmindedness – especially in the face of suffering caused by forces beyond anyone's control – that defines it. For Gurganus, redemption is always more powerful than sin.
The doctor’s final letter to the town reads like a biblical epistle offering wisdom as much to us, today, as we confront COVID, as to the residents of La Verne, Iowa:
The singular symptom likeliest to undo us an interfering terror.
I further observe, with Committee support, that our La Verne citizens will be exposed to less danger by calmly remaining in their homes, than by flying from them. I therefore urge families, in groups of five or ten, to take care in securing Good Help, to regularly visit each other, attending to each other’s arising needs. Friends will, in their hour of need, stand fast, not flee.
Stay, we must, however strong be our sinful urge to solely save ourselves. Certainly our very notion of Civilization depends on our group-determination that not one among us, even the most solitary and least loved, go left untended.
In this and all things, looking toward our healthier future, I remain your most respectful neighbor.
Frederick Marcus Petrie, M.D.
Allan Gurganus’s Top Ten List
1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719).
2. The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
3. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
4. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951).
5. A Death in the Family by James Agee (1957).
6. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895).
8. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930).
9. Emma by Jane Austen (1816).
10. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959).