Good old “image-versus-reality.” Of the various thematic dialectics proffered by our high-school English teachers to encourage critical reading and nuanced writing, surely image-versus-reality was the richest, the scariest, the most modern-seeming. Man-versus-nature? Not so bad in and of itself, but–let’s be honest here–really only useful in writing about camping, or discussing Hemingway or Jack London. Man-versus-man? Essential for the literature of the battlefield, of course, as well as any good triangulated love story, but still necessarily circumscribed by the formal rules of ballistic or romantic contest. No, in the family of this-versus-that critical contraptions only image-versus-reality could legitimately claim to deal with the central, tantalizing questions of modernity, with all of its figments and fractures. Is identity innate or conferred? Is how we’re perceived, for better or worse, who we are? And if our worlds appear to be safe, stable and happy–well, then, aren’t they?

I’d bet good money that when Allan Gurganus’ high-school English teacher asked him to write a critical paper exploring themes of man-versus-nature, man-versus-man or image-versus-reality within an assigned text, he opted for the lattermost every single time. As a novelist he has singularly devoted himself to addressing those tantalizing questions. His books tap into the chaotic waters that swirl just beneath, and threaten to flood, our carefully cultivated landscapes: Jim Crow in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, gay Manhattan during the 1980s in Plays Well With Others. Now, in The Practical Heart, Gurganus pulls out all the tools at his disposal–insight, bravery, humor and an unerring ear for the vernacular poetry of ordinary people–and pries open the gap between what things seem to be and what they actually are. In the widened space between, we find plenty to recognize.

The Practical Heart comprises four novellas, each of which hinges on a deception. In the title story, the American descendant of accidental Scottish immigrants tells the story of his great-aunt’s quest to restore, at least symbolically, her family’s lost patrimony by commissioning a John Singer Sargent portrait of herself. As she and her sisters try to forget their landed-gentry past and make peace with their new lives in the grittier precincts of Gilded-Age Chicago, Muriel determines that the only escape from the ignominy of their renter’s squalor is through saving pennies, sailing to England and returning with a painting that would somehow “hint, past the fortune lost, at some present interior wealth.” No other painter will do; only Sargent–whose portraits of wealthy Chicago matrons stare down at Muriel as she teaches piano to bored children of privilege–has the skill and social cachet to reverse the injustice visited upon her family and reveal in a few brushstrokes their true status as refined, if dislocated, aristocrats. “Securing such an image would mean reinstating your family into that framing proscenial reality where it so plainly belonged, from which it had so cruelly toppled,” theorizes our narrator, who certainly seems reliable enough.

But by this point Gurganus’ prose is positively awash in Jamesian tropes. And no such homage would be complete without an unreliable narrator. In the second half of this bifurcated narrative, set many years later, Muriel’s great-nephew–who has just finished telling us not only how the Sargent portrait came to be, but how it came to hang in the Art Institute of Chicago–recants his own tale and reveals it to be a lie. A lie in the service of a greater truth, perhaps, but a lie all the same. And then he proceeds to share with us the real story of his great-aunt, or perhaps the story of his real great-aunt, who resembles the Muriel of the first half, minus the whole portrait thing. Instead of a mannered society parable, we’re treated to the narrator’s first-person recollection of his fey and beloved relative, who showered him with encouragement and affection and taught him how to navigate through the sometimes-frightening chambers of the heart. What seems like indulgence this early in Gurganus’ book will later be revealed as theme: Our fictions, he’s reminding us, have the power not just to depict reality, but to improve it, in the same way that the brilliant contrivance of a Sargent masterpiece improves its subject. Or, as Aunt Muriel (may have) once put it: “Art becomes your own history most livingly wished.”

The deceptions that mark the second and third portions of the book, “Preservation News” and “He’s One, Too,” fuse tragedy and triumph. “Preservation News” arrives in the form of a lengthy addendum to a preservation society newsletter, in which the society’s prime mover, Tad Worth, a middle-aged gay man felled by AIDS, is eulogized by an older widow whom he delivered from a life of torpor and despair. As we learn about Tad’s strategies for saving the abandoned but deserving mansions of North Carolina, Gurganus deftly weaves metaphors of salvage and salvation to create a man remarkably equipped to carry out, regularly, heroic rescues of humans as well as houses. The largeness of Tad’s spirit and his infectious idealism remain potent, even as his body weakens. His deception is an honorable one: He refuses to play the part of a dying man, to acknowledge the measurable extent of his deterioration. To his eulogist he represents the embodiment of humanity’s strange desire, and happy ability, to reclaim, beautify and perfect: “I saw again how good Tad was at taking other’s mistakes, period mistakes, class mistakes, even our failures of nerve or character, and setting some period pediment atop them.”

“He’s One, Too” is most likely to earn Gurganus the wrath of conservatives and careless readers. It outlines the downfall of a “regular guy” in 1950s, small-town North Carolina: a husband, father, respected lawyer and civic leader whose identity is annihilated over the course of a few fateful seconds. While his children attend a matinee of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at a shopping-mall cinema in Raleigh, he wanders into the bathroom of a department store and succumbs to the overtures of a 15-year-old boy displaying his wares in a toilet stall. An arrest is made; a shocked community exacts its own form of justice; a life is ended. But the story’s not over: Gurganus relays these events through a narrator who as a little boy idolized the man, and even projected onto him the first confusing stirrings of homoerotic desire. Later the narrator, now grown and out of the closet, takes this sordid tale from his youth and reclaims it as an object lesson: Desire denied and concealed leads to tragedy. Some readers will blanch at Gurganus’ seemingly sympathetic rendering of what the law quite clearly defines as a child molester, and come to think of it they probably won’t like the sexually charged encounter between him and our 9-year-old narrator that much, either. But to read the story as an apology is to misread it. Gurganus isn’t shilling for NAMBLA. He’s warning of the dangers of repression, and marveling at the revolution that occurred between the era when gay men had to troll for sex in bathroom stalls and the era, just two decades later, when they could parade through the streets celebrating their right to love whomever, and however, they wanted.

The last and most fully realized novella in this collection is called “Saint Monster,” and while it’s also the longest, one wishes it were longer. Here Gurganus situates his characters at that southernmost intersection of sex, race and religion to form a coming-of-age tale that pierces the nostalgic melody of Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms with the gothic counterpoint of Flannery O’Connor. It begins at what seems like the end–the climactic discovery of a parent’s unforgivable transgression–and moves backward and forward through time as its narrator, yet another boy on the cusp of self-awareness, tries to piece together the “clues” that might reveal to him the true story of his family. The unswerving love of the son for his father, a preternaturally friendly if famously unattractive man, stays with the boy after his father’s death and through adulthood, when he must finally confront his mother–and himself–with questions that cut to the very heart of the image-versus-reality dichotomy. This is the author writing totally unself-consciously, freed from the constraints of Jamesian affectation or identity politics; this is Gurganus tracing the mythic saga of man in search of his origins.

Things, and people, are rarely what they seem to be. If that sounds like the most banal cliché in the book, then it’s a testament to Allan Gurganus’ craftsmanship that he can take a concept so shopworn and stretch it into art.