The Practical Heart
by Allan Gurganus
Published by Knopf
Published September 25, 2001
336 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
October 28, 2001.
Allan Gurganus (who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1947) looked less flamboyantly disheveled than he did the previous time I saw him.
He again wore a bow-tie (though in the cover picture for The Practical Heart has a regular necktie). He wore a white shirt, and sweater-vest, and unremarkable shoes. He began by reciting Thomas Hardy dirge (Hannely Lizbee? I can’t quite read what I jotted down, and don’t know Hardy’s oeuvre).
He said that it is very hard to write interestingly about sex. The mechanics are relatively rudimentary and unchanging, and graphicness quickly gets boring. So, his solution is to inject humor. That seems his solution for most problems! And obstacles enhance erotic charge more than does getting it on directly.
He said that after Plays Well with Others he has been consigned to the gay shelf. Although the most intimate relationships in Confederate Widow were all same-sex, that was a big, mainstream best-seller. The14-city book tour he is currently on does not take him to the top-line stores (he was at the Upper Market [Castro] Books Inc. instead of Black Oak, where I saw him on tour for Plays Well). He knew the pattern of minoritization and the risk, but thought he would somehow be exempt.
He said he never needs to write about a gay person again, and was astonished that a very laudatory Atlantic Monthly review of The Practical Heart said that all four novellas are about gay people, when only two are, and the longest one that occupies most of the book’s pages is not.
I was the second person in line to have my book(s) signed. The first was a man who said he had read The Practical Heart four times (it had been out less than ten days), including once to his lover for whom he had a second copy to get signed. If that weren’t enough, he added that the only time he had ever gone to a book-signing was Ginger Rogers’ memoir. She was in a wheel-chair and bloated and refusing to sign anything other than her book—specifically a book by her own mother that this man’s mother had. Christian Science tough, he characterized her.
When it was my turn, I said I had no stories. Gurganus smiled and said, “I’m sure you do, in fact,” and inscribed my copy “a fellow story.” I guess my stories are more the pulp kind, but didn’t have the wit to say so. He also remembered having seen me before (I was the first person at the Black Oaks appearance and sat in the front row to get in that position.)
It seems to me that this absorbing and heartbreaking book contains a novel and four longish stories rather than four novellas. Each of the five has a different typeface, supporting my count over the official one of the subtitle: “four novellas.” Although the stories are character-driven, something happens in all of them—catastrophic things in four, triumphant things in three. All five corkscrew into the characters rather than proceeding in anything resembling a straight line. This spiraling is the most Faulknerian aspect. The syntax is not as torturous as Faulkner’s, and the pain that is central to all the tales is leavened by humor, some of it quite dark (like Flannery O’Connor or Sanctuary) some as broad as in As I Lay Dying or The Reivers (two of my favorite Faulkner novels).
The title story (originally published in Harper’s) tells about a Scottish family drawn to America by the writings of the German convict who wrote popular tales of the American west, Karl May. In Chicago, the wife of the Scottish lord is struck and maimed by a streetcar (à la Frida Kahlo). The family (with four daughters) is unable to return to their Scottish manor and must go into “trade.” Muriel, the eldest, makes her living going through the service entrances of nouveau riche Chicagoans to teach their spoiled children piano. She decides to spend her savings (and her $200 dowry) on being immortalized in paint by John Singer Sargent.
That (quite wonderful!) 35-page story is followed by a 32-page exposition (meta-fiction), “The Impractical Truth,” about the author’s special relationship with an unmarried great-aunt Muriel who saw an artist in the young Allan Gurganus and encouraged him: “Muriel prepared me for the onslaught of my own latent brilliance—brilliance at doing what, she didn’t yet say.”
The third story (officially, second novella) was published (according to the copyright page—not a location at which fiction traditionally appears) in Conjunctions and Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is entitled “Preservation News,” the title of a newsletter for those dedicated to saving historic structures of North Carolina. The first part is an arch pitch by the founder-editor, Theodore Hunstable Worth, for someone to save Elkton Green, a mansion (in what is now downtown Falls, North Carolina) in which a Victorian-era tragedy occurred (involving ostentation far into hubris).
The notice of what needs to be preserved is only six pages in length (six very funny pages). It is followed by a lengthy tribute to the deceased editor by Mary Ellen Broadfield, a widow who was rescued from moping and enlisted in historic preservation work by “Tad” Worth. “A Perhaps Too Personal Reflection” is an affectionate tribute to “Tad” and his good works—of which making people feel better was, perhaps, even more important than preserving old buildings.
“He’s One, Too” (which I first read in Granta, and was also in Boys Like Us) is, like “The Impractical Truth” and “Saint Monster,” an anguished recollection of its narrator’s childhood and a major doomed figure from it. (I think that it is the same narrator as the one in “The Impractical Truth”; a different one is imagined for “Saint Monster.”) The grown-up narrator recalls Dan R___, one of his father’s golfing buddies and a pillar of the community (chair of the town’s most successful-ever Community Chest drive and four-time winner of the country club’s annual tournament) who had been very considerate to him. Dan was entrapped approaching the fifteen-year-old son of a Raleigh policeman at a urinal in a J. C. Penney store in a new (in 1957) shopping mall.
This made Dan an instant non-person back in Falls, and after serving seven weeks in jail, he slunk away. Gurganus (who again lives in a small North Carolina town, as he did during his childhood) reflects, “Authorities never arrested our town’s obvious ones. Maybe in being flagrant, those boys knew best how to hide,” but for the married men taking stupid, desperate risks, “the very nanosecond queer news got out, these guys fell forever.” Social death instantly befell their wives and children, as well. (Dan’s children were not noticed huddled in the Raleigh mall until hours after their father had been taken away, and his wife was in effect sentenced to house arrest.)
Gurganus has sympathy for everyone, including the youth used by his policeman father as a decoy. He even manages to extend some to the father “whose own sexual fantasies let him display his son (nearly as pretty as he once was)” and then use the law to punish anyone ensnared by the un-innocent behavior he taught his son to employ.
The final fiction, occupying half the volume, is entitled “Saint Monster.” The title character, Clyde, is the legal (but probably not biological) father of the narrator, Clyde, Jr., called “Meadows.” Clyde is a widely beloved traveling jewelry salesman with a very homely face and a very attractive wife. She was attended to every Sunday afternoon by a studly veterinarian who had sired nine children with his wife—nine children who looked more like the narrator than Meadows looked like Clyde. While Grace is entertaining her lover on the Lord’s Day, Clyde takes Meadows to distant motels to replenish their supply of Bibles.
Meadows loves Clyde nearly as much as Clyde loves Meadows, but following the Oscar Wilde dictum, he kills the thing he loves. Not directly: there are in fact three steps. However, this is an instance in which childhood guilt nurtured ever after seems justified. Meadows insists on confronting directly the question of his biological paternity and his mother’s fidelity. The family’s modus operandi rested on tactful avoidance of these subjects—as the adult narrator understands, but as the eight-year-old did not.
Class—both economic and cultural power—is important in all four novellas. Sex and/or its presumed absence are important in all except for “Preservation News.” Race is also central in “Saint Monster,” which seems to me the most Faulknerian part of the book through its midpoint. The first half has Meadows figuring out what went wrong when he was eight, circling back to the fateful Sunday when he forced everything out in the open. I was beginning to wonder how this could go on for so many more pages, but, in the second half of “Saint Monster,” Meadows gets perspectives from two women on his ancestry. The second one is especially surprising. Although I’m not entirely satisfied with “Saint Monster,” I am glad that I did not quit midway through reading it.
In addition to humor and compassion and vivid imagery, what all of these have in common is commemorating individuals who were important to the narrators and are keenly mourned by them. Three of the stories recall childhood perplexities and individuals whom the child adored, but not everyone else did. “Preservation News” reverses the age pattern, with an aging woman commemorating a younger man, one who charmed everyone.
Having written an often comic novel about unbearable losses of gay men to AIDS, Gurganus has been typecast as a “gay writer,” and the laudatory Atlantic Monthly review of The Practical Heart said all four novellas are about gay men. This is very odd because the longest one is about a married, totally heterosexual man and the extensive heterosexual behavior of his legal and biological parents. There are no gay men in the title story, either. That “Tad” is gay is not the focus of “Preservation News,” and it is very dubious whether Dan R___ or his entrappers are gay. The adult narrator is. “Preservation News” provides a perspective on a gay man who is not at all defined by his sexuality. “He’s One, Too” has a gay man’s perspective on some homosexual contacts by men (and postpubescent adolescent) who are not gay. But perhaps focusing on unkindness and hypocrisy are “gay”? In that sense, at least, this is a gay book— a very moving gay book.
Incidentally, “Saint Monster” reveals more about American motel culture of the decade following the second world war than Lolita. It joins “He’s One” in challenging the lack of sexual drive in boys: “Puritanism wants us to believe a male’s sex desire begins the day he shaves and gets his driver’s license. Ha. Being Grace Delman’s boy, I was born erect” (181).
Online Gurganus interviews:
published by epinions, 28 October 2001
©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray