Tuesday, March 9, 1999

White People

by Allan Gurganus

Some top-notch, moving, finely introspective American fiction in this collection:

“Minor Heroism: Something About My Father."  Told from the point of view of the son as a child discussing his father the war hero; then the father as he looks with disgust and incomprehension on his grown son, a gay writer; then the child again, drawing a picture of his abusive father.  Moving and funny and sad, crafted thoughtfully with a fine attention to detail and the human touch.  Excellent.

"Condolences To Every One Of Us."  An elderly woman writes to the daughter of a couple killed during an African tour which stumbles into a riot, explaining what happened.  A brilliant story, more light-hearted than it sounds, rife with black humor and digs at the callousness of the human spirit.  What is the world coming to?  Ruin, probably.  Excellent stuff.

"Art History."  An art history teacher is dismissed for “misconduct” with his pupils, and later is arrested.  The point of view shuttles from the teacher, his daughter, and the arresting officer.  Another wonderful story by Gurganus.  It makes the reader feel sympathy for this pederast by presenting him as an affable man, somewhat confused by events that seem to have swept him up through no fault of his own.  He has been taught to see beauty in everything (his own teacher gave a final exam in which the class had to describe part of a toilet), and unfortunately for him the world isn’t as beautiful as he’d like.

"Nativity, Caucasian." The narrator describes his unexpected birth at a ladies’ bridge game, and how the women reacted: some sturdy and proper, some fainting with horror.  A testament to the strength of the Southern woman, stepped in gentility; but more importantly a truly funny scene.

"Breathing Room: Something About My Brother." The characters from “Minor Heroism” return.  Bryan recollects his childhood with his brother Bradley, watching in puzzlement as his younger brother turns from a sickly baby, capable of being killed by a single bee sting, whom he must protect and care for, into a rough, callous, athletic boy, while he remains bookish and sensitive.  In retaliation for being shown up by an ungrateful Bradley one day, Bryan burns the models Bradley works so painstakingly on.  A painfully real story, with human characters and voices, masterfully done. 

"America Competes."  A series of letters in a national competitions for ideas to decorate a mural in Washington; the letters are from the contestants and from the increasingly beleaguered, mild-mannered judge to the contest organizers.  A very cynical story, implying that the masses are on the whole talentless, rude, illiterate, and/or as crazy as nutcakes.  The judge breaks down under the combined weight of anti-government atheist militiamen, hillbillies who want their dead pappy’s sketches back, and a loony old lady who writes bad children’s stories.  Fun to read, but rather grim.

“Adult Art." A married father and Superintendent of Schools has a homosexual encounter with a young man he picks up in his office building.  The young man tells him a rather ugly story of a voyeuristic sexual awakening, and the older man fantasizes about what it might be like to learn to know, to care long term for this stranger, rather than having to fear “being really belted, blackmailed, worse” each time he craves his kind of intimacy.  “They could arrest me for everything I like about myself,” he says; but the urge to connect remains stronger than his fear.  It’s a beautiful, intelligent story.

"It Had Wings." An old woman who lives alone helps an angel who crashes in her yard, and her faith in herself is renewed.  “I’m right here, ready.  Ready for more,” she says defiantly, standing by herself in the kitchen.  Great descriptions, the woman’s life brilliantly sketched in a few knowing lines.  Then just enough to show the majesty and mystery of the angel, but not enough to make it a Hollywood computer-generated superhero.  “Silvery.  Raw.  Gleaming like a sunny monument, a clock.”  The angel tells her to notice things in this life, because in the next they all look alike, “just another army.”  An inventive, inspired vignette.

"A Hog Loves Its Life: Something About My Grandfather," fifty "pages.  Bryan, now a man of thirty-nine, reminisces about the tales his grandfather told him when he was young (the hilarious story of Lancaster’s mule, makes up the first part of the whole), the spectacle of his grandmother’s death and the slow sad decay of his grandfather into senility.  This is a wholly accurate description of a tight family: all the guilt and shame and love and regret are there, expressed as well as they can be. 

"Reassurance." A story composed of two letters – one genuine letter from Walt Whitman to the mother of a soldier who died of his wounds; and another imagined letter from the dead soldier to his mother, exhorting her to “forget me by remembering me” and get on with her life.  He tells her that something very holy stands before her: a brand new day.  It’s a moving story, and succeeds as drama, but it lacks that immediate power of Gurganus’ stories about modern Southern manners.

"Blessed Assurance," a novella.  An elderly man narrates how, as a teenager in the ‘forties, he sold funeral insurance to the poor blacks in “Baby Africa.”  Very poor himself, he works three jobs, takes care of his sick parents and goes to night school.  So when, out of sympathy, he begins carrying some of his clients in arrears, he finds himself in a bind.  One noble old lady in particular touches him, and he realizes that sooner or later despite himself he must cut her off.  The language is perfect; Gurganus switches from the young man’s abashed inner turmoil to the darkly cynical boss to the elderly black women’s patois seamlessly.  It’s a confessional tale: the now successful narrator weighed down with an atheist’s uncertain guilt and wonder over how small sums and minor events can change our world, or maybe even our fate in the next life?  But Gurganus also manages to be whip-smart funny as well.  A brilliant novella.

four stars

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