Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Literary Ruralism (Part V): Place as main character

Dwight Garner reviews Local Souls, Alan Garganus's latest book in today's New York Times.  Local Souls is actually a collection of three novellas.  All three stories are set in fictional Falls, North Carolina, in the eastern part of the state. ("Falls" was also the setting for Garganus's earlier book, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989)). I appreciated how seriously Garner took the role of "place" in his review.  
In some respects, Falls is the main character in these novellas, a collective narrator tucked behind the actual narrator, the way the Grand Ole Opry band used to settle in behind Patsy Cline or the Heartbreakers do behind Tom Petty. “We still tend to worship our doctors and diagnose our preachers,” we read.  
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This buried collective narrator functions as theater critic as much as Greek chorus. Neighbors wait for the next small-town star to be born. “Eyes everywhere, ears pressed to phones, mouths describing your simple walk to school. Every time you stepped aside to comb your hair back nice? that’d been your Broadway audition!”
Another recently published book in which place looms large is Daniel Woodrell's The Maid's Version, discussed here.

But the only one of the novellas that finds favor with reviewer Wright is "Decoy," about a "venerated local doctor" who no longer practices, but is nationally known for his meticulously carved duck decoys.   Though the town feels abandoned by the doctor, they are nevertheless proud of him.  Wright calls the story "dignified and searching," and revealing regarding class and how "communities expand and contract."  I love this line from the novella's narrator, who reveals that his family has “barely made the broad-jump from clay tobacco fields to red clay courts.”  

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