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The Art of Seeing
Allan Gurganus's The Practical Heart

by Charlie Onion

With stylistic references that range from Henry James to Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor and time periods that range over more than a hundred years, Allan Gurganus's The Practical Heart is remarkably rich and diverse, but the themes at its core are as consistent as they are intelligent.

For all its abundant stylistic variety, Allan Gurganus's The Practical Heart: Four Novellas has a single gesture, if not theme, at its center: in each story, a character (usually middle-aged) looks back at the past and mulls over its effect on him / her in the present. When, if not where, that past lies is only a part of this superb collection's creative diversity.

The first section of "The Practical Heart," which opens the collection, is a beautifully delicate, Jamesian story set in the late nineteenth century. An erudite, relatively wealthy Glasgow professor who loves cheap cowboy novels arranges to teach in Chicago for a year so he can see the fabled American Wild West. But once he and his family (a wife and four daughters) come to America, they discover that the actual Chicago--with its slaughterhouses and mud and dust--doesn't offer an ounce of romantic Wild West adventure. (In time, the father dubs it the Land of the Cuspidor.) The family is ecstatic when the year's teaching is up--but the day before they're scheduled to leave, the professor's wife is struck by a streetcar, and the family is forced to stay in America rather than risk having the professor's wife die in transit. Trapped in a crass, artless, indifferent world, the family descends to tenement housing and seems on the verge of being swallowed entire when one of the daughters decides to immortalize herself in the more perfect world of art by having her portrait painted by John Singer Sargent.


The Practical Heart:
Four Novellas

Allan Gurganus
Alfred A. Knopf
322 pp.
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In keeping with such a romantic story (both in the opening section and in the closing section, where we meet the nephew of the 'real' Sargent art subject), "The Practical Heart" presents two worlds--the world "as wished" and the world "as History merely assigned." The artistic drive seeks to capture the world as wished, but it's the historical world--the realm of practicality and unmet wishes--that wins inevitably. It's a poignant, Ruskin-driven story, full of yearning and at the same time offering an explanation for why the yearning will never be acknowledged: "Is this not our bitter heritage? Trading away the Pleasures we most want, in hopes of scoring Duty Points to win some greater credit up ahead and via Suffering's rebates? Sick. And surely sad. But, ours."

"Preservation News," the second story in the collection, is also a first-person narrative in which an admired dead figure--this time, an historical preservationist who died of AIDS--is eulogized. The central theme (the preservation of art in the face of mindless expansion) echoes the two worlds of "The Practical Heart," but the narrator's voice is decidedly more relaxed and conversational than the dense, compressed voice Gurganus uses in "The Practical Heart." It's highly readable, and the narrator (a seventy-eight-year-old widow who volunteers for the local preservation group) is witty enough to keep us turning the pages contentedly. But the story really doesn't attempt to achieve nearly as much as the other three in the collection, and it's best considered a divertissement in the midst of far greater complexities.

The narrator's voice in "He's One, Too" is decidedly more interesting, and the storyline is far more worthy of our sustained attention. While he speaks from middle age, the narrator's story carries us back to Falls, North Carolina (a favorite setting for Gurganus's fiction), in the seemingly idyllic year of 1957. Idyllic, that is, unless you happen to be gay. "In Falls, North Carolina, in 1957," the narrator tells us,


we had just one way of "coming out."

It was called getting caught.


As a boy, the narrator tells us, he idolized a friend of his father's. Dan R--was a thirty-three-year-old church and business leader with three children, and his charismatic influence on the narrator (and seemingly everyone else in town) was powerful. Unfortunately, Dan was arrested propositioning a cop's fifteen-year-old son in a public restroom, and with a finality that shocked the narrator, Dan simply ceased to be...leaving the narrator (who is just beginning to discover his own homosexuality) without a role model--or the safety of knowing he'll be accepted by his own family and town, no matter who he becomes.

"He's One, Too" is a profoundly affecting story that blurs the lines beautifully between fiction and nonfiction. Where the artifice of "Preservation News" is apparent, "He's One, Too" reads like Gurganus's own confessional memoir. Since it's labeled a novella, we must simply say that Gurganus is a tremendously convincing writer, I suppose. It certainly contains some of the best writing in the book, driven by a boy's secret, heady imagination. In the following passage, for instance, he expounds on his mishearing his father's reference to his fellowship with male friends as a literal ship:


At age six, I made the Fellow Ship a pirate craft, longer than wide, a carved dragon's head snarling at its rapier tip, a barge almost too pointedly male ever to float on nebulous female water.

At nine, I pictured a torch-bearing Viking boat, its rowers shirtless doctors and lawyers, its cargo monogrammed leather golf bags, its destination the Links of America, but its true goal: grab-assing, the dirty guesses about who that slutty little Donna wouldn't "do" dry. At the prow, hands on hips, lit unevenly by violent orange torchlight, shirtless yet bandoliered with those leather thongs Kirk Douglas wore in The Vikings--Dan, Captain of The Fellow Ship of choice. His deep voice called, "Stroke, fellows. Stroke it good, pals o' mine. Pull hard, because The Fellow Ship is for us baad boys only. Pull hard, good men, because you can."


Juxtaposed starkly against this fantasy writing (which often makes the narrator read like a precocious Humbert Humbert) is the sudden emptiness and confusion Dan's disappearance provokes. It's painful stuff, but Gurganus keeps it artistically challenging, even though he slips a few political speeches under the artful prose.

As powerful and engrossing as "He's One, Too" is, "Saint Monster" (which closes the collection) is certainly the most momentous, ambitious novella in the book (which is saying a lot). It is also the one most deserving the description 'novella;' "Preservation News" is really only a short story in feel and length, and while it certainly has more heft, "He's One, Too" doesn't really stretch its legs enough to pass from a 'short story' to 'novella' categorization. But "Saint Monster" certainly merits the distinction; indeed, it probably could have been published on its own.

But that's not to say it's the best entry in the collection.

Indeed, it starts to feel, three-quarters the way through, a little like a heartfelt Lawrence Kasdan film that doesn't know when simply to end. It's not a problem with the material, I think. The core story is eye-grabbing if lurid in a Gothic, Flannery O'Connor way. And you don't have to read much to get a good taste of it. In the opening scene, we meet an eight-year-old boy who, having spent the day with his impossibly ugly but saintly father delivering Bibles to cheap motels, breaks into his own house and finds his mother enjoying herself under a naked, platinum-blond veterinarian. Lurid, yes. But try to stop reading after the opening sentence:


Dad screams I mustn't see them at it but I race across our backyard toward the darkened house. Under me, short legs are stunted flippers spinning. My old tricycle on its side, I hop. Lagging, Daddy bellows, "Come back, son. Leave them be. Don't go in and look. Let sleeping dogs. She loves us always...."

Three lawns behind, he waves the white sling of his newly broken arm. He's a smoker and is stumbling and keeps hacking, the old sweetie. Daddy begs me not to catch the two of them at it, at some deed. But I clamp palms over my ears, I must not obey Dad, I am only doing this for him.

Our rear screen door is latched. I make such a fist. Knuckles break through rusted wire, a fry of brown powder. I jump then chin myself on the door's crossbar. Reaching in, I unhook everything.

"Don't looook," Dad's voice smears. But I am through our kitchen and clear into the shadowed living room. I've run five paces past already seeing them, joined. My elbows out, I slide to a car-brake-screeching halt.


You read it, right? It's impossible not to, really, and not simply because it's a lurid, Freudian nightmare. It also happens to be beautifully written, where poetry appears unexpectedly ("Knuckles break through rusted wire, a fry of brown powder") and where seemingly innocent words take on unexpected weight ("Reaching in, I unhook everything"). It is, in short, grim, beautiful, unstoppable writing.

Like the other stories in this collection, "Saint Monster" is narrated by an older figure (the eight-year-old boy, now middle-aged) trying to make sense of the past's impact on his abiding character. It's hard to make middle-aged classics professors do anything as shocking as the novella's opening scene, and the present-day material Gurganus offers in the story's final pages isn't exactly riveting. But, counterintuitive as it might seem, I think "Saint Monster" could have been stronger if it had been allowed to breathe a bit more in a longer form. I know: it's an odd thought, that a novella that seems to run too long would work better in an even longer form. But a novel's length would nullify the narrator's professed need to hurry up while getting all his material into the final pages. Rushed as he is with the present-day material, the narrator seems consciously to be limiting the number of scenes he recounts, and it's too few to support all the corners Gurganus wants to turn here. With a cunningly structured novel (one, that is, that has greater narrative thrust in the present-day scenes), Gurganus could have fleshed the scenes out better and given the present-day elements of the story room to grow comfortably around us.

That core story is stunningly well-told, though, and despite a few unnecessary repetitions, it pays off beautifully because we care about Gurganus's characters, who are, each and every one of them, remarkably complicated and lifelike. You just need to hold up well to heartbreak to enjoy it. Click here to find any book!


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