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Originally published Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 3:05 AM

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Gurganus’ ‘Local Souls’: stories of a North Carolina town

In Allan Gurganus’ new novella collection “Local Souls,” the author vividly paints the lives of the citizens of a small North Carolina town. Gurganus reads Wednesday, Oct. 9, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Allan Gurganus

The author of “Local Souls” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).

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‘Local Souls’

by Allan Gurganus

Liveright, 352 pp., $25.95

In 1966, Allan Gurganus was a conscientious objector serving as a message decoder on an aircraft carrier. A man with time on his hands, he developed the idea for “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” and his debut novel was published in 1989. Trained as a painter, Gurganus was set upon a different path by this hugely successful novel.

He is still a painter, of sorts, one who has brought Falls, N.C., to life, not only through the “Widow,” but now through a group of local souls vividly portrayed in this collection of three novellas. His writing style is unique; perhaps it would not be favored by strict grammarians, but it is perfect for conveying the way his North Carolinians communicate. He can show class, gender, education and outlook in about two sentences.

The book comprises three loosely linked stories, all set in Falls, a town of about 6,000 on the banks of the Lithium River. Rooted as these tales may be, events taking place and home truths mined in Falls may be applied anywhere.

The first narrative, “Fear Not,” finds a loving couple watching two girls in a play. He is younger than she, and their backstory is a dandy. Gurganus lays it all out as though he is saying “pass the salt.” He has the capacity to redeem tragedy with sane acceptance and dark humor.

The second novella, “Saints Have Mothers,” has a mother allowing her 17-year-old daughter to go on an adventure to Africa. This girl is so beautiful, loving, giving, kind and selfless that she is a bit insipid around the edges. One of her favorite things is giving away her mother’s shoes — all of them. While in Africa, she is reported drowned, her mother spends all her money to bring the “body” home, and now the story really begins. No, the girl isn’t stealing the money — it’s better than that.

The final novella, “Decoy,” which is overlong and repetitive in part, is about the lifelong friendship of two men. Doc Roper is retiring, and the townspeople are losing the tender ministrations of one who is well loved by all of them — especially by his best friend, Bill Mabry. Bill came from the other side of the tracks but, through an unexpected inheritance, finds himself as one of the “owning-class folks.” Gurganus is succinct: “If we were sturdy burlap, woven to stand up under barn temperatures? They, having only lived indoors under mansion-conditions? Why, they’d been silk since 1820.”

After a cataclysmic flood drowns all the Riverside homes, Roper can’t get past the loss of his collection of decoys, meticulously carved and painted by him.

Gurganus uses the river and the decoys as masterfully effective symbols for the many things hidden or not even recognized by the two men as they move away from life.

After too many years, a consummate storyteller is back, telling it first from the outside and then moving away from the obvious into dark and complex interior places.

Valerie Ryan owns a bookstore in Cannon Beach, Ore.

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