Allan Gurganus: A Fool for Christmas

[Horse & Buggy Press/Duke University; November 2019]

Reading event: Thursday, Dec. 12, 7 p.m., free

The Regulator Bookshop, Durham

Twenty-two years ago, the book designer and letterpress printer Dave Wofford visited The Readery, a now-defunct bookstore in Durham, to try to sell some of his books. Bookseller Frank Parker insisted that Wofford sit down then and there to read Allan Gurganus’s short story “It Had Wings,” which was published in The Paris Review in 1985. The story is about a brief, erotic visitation that an old woman receives from an angel. When Wofford finished, he said that he liked it. 

“Get in the car,” Parker said. “We’re going to Allan’s place right now.” 

Soon, Wofford found himself on Gurganus’s front porch in Hillsborough, agreeing to work on a limited-edition letterpress book of the story. 

The anecdote has all the charm and spontaneity of a Gurganus yarn, and it set the precedent for another collaboration, “A Fool for Christmas,” a story that Wofford’s Horse & Buggy Press co-published with Duke University Press and Duke University Libraries this month. A limited number of copies are available on Duke University Press’s website and at bookstores around the state. 

Although this is the first time that “A Fool for Christmas” has seen print, it was commissioned in 2004 by NPR’s All Things Considered, where it played in the coveted Christmas Eve slot, which draws millions of listeners. Gurganus had just two weeks to write and record the story, which is his take on the traditional nativity tale. (Stop reading here if you don’t want spoilers.)

Instead of Bethlehem, the story takes place in an Eastern North Carolina shopping mall, and instead of Joseph, we have Vernon Ricketts, a talky pet-shop owner, as protagonist. Mary takes the form of a nameless teenage girl in a bulky coat who roams the halls talking into a toy cellphone and making food-court cocktails out of free ketchup and lemon wedges. 

Gurganus, whose novels include the New York Times bestseller Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, is known for bawdy small-town stories that tinker with social codes. He’s an irreverent writer, sure, but one well-suited to retooling a religious tale: Angels and prophets populate his fiction, and he could probably make any gas station in America sound like a baroque cathedral. His stories often sprawl across decades, with curses and blessings that skip across generations like rocks.  

“I was not unaffected by the church,” Gurganus once told the Oxford American. “Christ’s parables inspire me daily. My work is an attempt to answer those big old catechism questions with a few new answers.” 

Eventually, the shopping-mall Madonna finds refuge in a stable-like pet store and delivers her baby. Vernon Ricketts, witnessing a birth for the first time, observes, “I see now—every creature must be valuable if each birth takes this much work.” 

Pretty quickly into reading, you realize how well this tearjerker would play on radio. Translating it to print was a different challenge. For one thing, it required Gurganus, an obsessive editor—he’s been working on one book about the history of a Southern Baptist church for nearly fifty years—to commit to a set version of the story. 

This wasn’t easy: Gurganus reads the story aloud at the Regulator Bookshop every year, and the freedom to tweak it orally has become as much a part of the story as the narrative itself. But even when he settled on one version, it still needed a text that replicated the oral tradition.

To accomplish this, Wofford bolded, indented, and italicized parts of the text that had particularly memorable cadences when read aloud. He also letterpress-printed the cover typography by hand, and included color illustrations by Gurganus, who was originally trained as a painter.

The result is a loving object that tells two stories. One is about a teenage girl with a twang who gives birth in a pet shop. The other is about the risks and innovations that small presses make to survive in a struggling industry. We live in the age of the million-dollar book deal, and any less-profitable project, particularly one that rounds out at thirty-two pages, normally doesn’t see the light of day. 

Earlier this year, though, Duke University Libraries acquired Gurganus’s archives, which included “A Fool for Christmas.” In October, the project was greenlit when funding from the university came through, leaving only a few weeks for Gurganus to illustrate it and Wofford to design it. 

Call it a holiday miracle, but they did, and the book, now on its second printing, makes a case that, given the right set of ingredients, there is still a market for publishing experiments. It’s also an enticing way for universities to make their special-collections ephemera more accessible to the public. 

“I think whatever popularity this tale has found goes to how we live now,” Gurganus says. “Stories and novellas can give us all the satisfaction that an eight-hundred-page novel does. I see this as a subversive step toward overcoming the impeached concentration of our era. William Blake tells us the mystery of the universe can be found in a single grain of sand. How much more of the world can a whole short story offer?”

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