The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus

Liveright  |   Jan. 12

Allan Gurganus is talking about psychic visitations over Zoom one January morning when his phone—almost certainly a landline—begins ringing shrilly. He offers a genteel apology and ignores it as it rings three times more. A few beats later, my own phone goes off, briefly eclipsing our conversation.

“Well,” Gurganus says, pausing. “Speaking of concurrent realities.”

Zoom is a less auspicious stage than Gurganus’s sprawling home in Hillsborough, which is filled with historical tchotchkes and borders a graveyard that dates back to 1757. Still, even in a virtual setting, it feels perfectly possible that some element—a ghost, a concurrent reality, a wrinkle in time, whatever you want to call it—has joined the waiting room of our call.

As we talk, Gurganus references a childhood experience where, riding in the back of a station wagon, he saw several cars race by and became paralyzed with dread. His friend’s mother, driving the car, pulled over to try and calm him down as he mumbled, “Something horrible is about to happen.” When they resumed driving and rounded a bend, they discovered a gory accident had occurred moments before.

Gurganus’s sense of his ability is practical—he says these premonitions “don’t happen often, thank God”—but the result is a certain orderly mysticism that threads through his life and life’s work. He is a famously great talker, speaking in perfect ecumenical sentences—if the Constitution and Walt Whitman had a baby, it would probably sound like Gurganus—but he’s attentive and generous, too. In discussing the craft of writing, he’s quick to cite his influences with reverence.

But while some elements of fiction, like structure and pacing, can be taught, others—his subtle ability to bend the space-time continuum, for one—really can’t be learned in a classroom.

“Sometimes zones get scrambled,” he explains. “There’s a leak between the realms of reality, and we get a glimpse of something that either happened long ago, or is about to happen in fluid time. One of the beauties of fiction writing is that you get to experience all those concurrent times at once. To be able to move backwards and forward is a beautiful thing.”

Gurganus, 73, speaks with me a few days ahead of the release of The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus, his sixth book, and his first release since 2013. The stories, he says, are bound together by a common theme of “unknown people doing unbelievable things.” In the nine stories, all told in his characteristic comic voice, readers meet twin boys scooped up by a tornado, a dog saved just short of drowning, a shopping mall madonna, and a polyamorous snake farmer who bewitches an elderly spinster to the point of super-detailed cunninlingual climax.

Gurganus doesn’t describe these instances as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” a maxim that’s become commonplace to the point of being commercial. Instead, the idea he revisits often in his fiction is that most people—unknown misfits and oddballs as they may be—are already extraordinary. All they need is a small opportunity to show it.

Born the oldest of four sons in small-town Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Gurganus was raised, by his telling, among a bevy of brilliant older women—teachers, relatives, the wives of preachers—who nurtured his ambitions. Variations of these women appear often in his fiction.

“They had private lives of their own and were interested in books and painting and all the things that interested me,” Gurganus says. “They became heroines of mine. I think being a gay man probably has a lot to do with identifying with the people who were challenged and left out and laughed at at times. To try and find my way into letting the world admire these people the way I did has been part of my work from the very beginning.”

Originally, Gurganus wanted to work as a painter. The Vietnam War derailed these plans with three years of service on the USS Yorktown. With paint materials in short supply, the sailor turned to writing; after the war, he studied with Grace Paley at Sarah Lawrence College and John Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In 1974, Cheever submitted his 26-year old student’s story, “Minor Heroism,” to The New Yorker. It was Gurganus’s first publication, and the first time The New Yorker had ever featured a gay character in a work of fiction.

Then came the eighties—and for Gurganus, who was living in New York City, a decade of profound love and loss as he cared for dozens of friends dying from AIDS. “Maybe it was my Presbyterian upbringing, but I remember thinking that this was bound to end badly, that it was more than any of us could be granted,” he told the Oxford American, years later, of the freedom and community he found in New York.

In 1989, he published his most well-known work, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which became a runaway hit and spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. Decades of books, awards, teaching appointments, fierce political engagement, and a move back to North Carolina followed.

Of course, there’s more to his story: If Gurganus’s fiction teaches his readers anything, it’s that people have far more depth and mystery to their lives than what can fit on a Christmas card. But for the purposes of this profile, a summary finds him back in his home in Hillsborough—built in 1900 for the local doctor—where he gazes into the Zoom screen, a vase of blue hydrangeas arranged behind him and an assistant moving quietly around in the background.

Here, with a window overlooking the maybe-haunted, maybe-not-haunted graveyard, he wrote most of the nine stories that come out this week.

The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor, the leading story in the new collection, makes a strong case for Gurganus’s ideas about the physics of fiction. Set in 1847, the story takes place in a small Illinois town ravaged by cholera. At first, the town’s residents idolize the young doctor who comes to treat them; as the epidemic drags on, idolatry twists into blame.

So, yes, it’s a historical story about a widespread disease—one he just happened to write in the month before a viral disease swept the United States.

Gurganus, who has been interested in epidemics since boyhood, says he’s had a premonition that we would experience another one in this lifetime. When he witnessed the HIV scourge years ago, that belief was only reinforced.

The day he sent his agent the story, Gurganus says, was the first day the word “COVID-19” appeared in the pages of The New York Times. Urged by its prescience, his agent forwarded the story to The New Yorker. It was published in April. Many details, including misplaced blame on essential workers, resonate eerily; in an interview with fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Gurganus described this resonance as “rhyming across time.”

And then there are the story’s closing lines, part of a letter from the doctor, which sound like a gong in our current, collective fight for survival:

“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, be left untended.”

The words, for their prescience, make you shiver; they also leave you feeling a little more loved, a sensation that holds through much of Gurganus’s writing. Rhetorical devices are cleverly scaffolded with electric sentences, making for a reading experience so absorbing that the sensation of being moved almost takes you by surprise. (“There is another world,” the book’s epigraph reads, “but it is in this one.”)

In a roundabout way, the book’s final story, “My Heart Is a Snake Farm,” also feels weirdly true to the past year. It features Esther, a virginal spinster, who lives out her sunset years alone in a decrepit Florida hotel until a gregarious snake charmer, trailed by a harem of younger women, opens a neighboring tourist attraction. The setting evokes the weird, flash-in-the-pan popularity of Netflix’s Tiger King, from the pandemic’s early days. Certainly, Gurganus’s characters are every bit as colorful as Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin.

But the story, published in The New Yorker in 2004, is vintage Gurganus. It’s as baroque and over-the-top—as Florida—as you can get. In some moments, it flirts with being too over the top. But then, it stops right at the brink and breaks your heart.

A retired librarian, Esther is so convinced of her ugliness, so authoritative about her lot in life, that the reader feels her surprise keenly when, finally, she is noticed and given a lone moment of blinding sexual rapture— a moment that provokes “Snake-farmish sounds, only it was me,” from a tongue that becomes “a sizzling skillet, a little pen flashlight, now featherweight, now flapjack, then just a single birthday candle.”

Gurganus likes to write about sex. A conversation about writing usually ends up also being about sex, and he jokes lightly about being a “dirty old man.” That label, though, doesn’t capture the profundity of his searching treatment of the erotic. What’s so wonderful about Esther and her rapture is how far-removed it is from a fantasy. If it’s dirty, it’s because it’s human, not Hollywood.

“Even an erotic experience gone wrong can be incredibly amazing and more erotically charged than most pornography that I’ve found on the web,” Gurganus says. “There’s something about people reaching out to each other in that way that is always interesting on the page.”

Since the late 1970s, Gurganus has been working on his swan song, An Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church, which charts the hundred-year history of a church in the fictional town of Falls, North Carolina, where many of his books are set.

I haven’t read this book; Gurganus is still in the process of editing it, he says, and the pages are stored in several heavy boxes that he’s slowly hacking his way through. But from his telling, more than anything he’s written, the book gets at the mysterious, essential blur between spiritual and sexual life.

Most of his characters live in that blur. Maybe most of us do, as well.

“The experience of being the young man writing the book and the old man finishing the book is important,” Gurganus says. “It’s very much about the confusion between spiritual life and sexual life, which are two stripes that I find fascinating and not competitive—in fact, they’re synchronous, often, and therefore very confusing. And wherever there’s confusion, there’s fiction.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced cholera as a viral disease instead of as a bacterial disease. 

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