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
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
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.