White People

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

WHITE PEOPLE evidences the same love of stories, storytelling, and storytellers that helped make OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL a bestseller in 1989. Written and published over the past two decades, the eleven “stories and novellas” collected here—even the three composed in epistolary form—are clearly but not naively oral in style. The apparent artlessness of the narrative voices, however, must be measured against an authorial complexity involving sudden shifts in time, space, and speaker. While the former beguiles and delights, the latter purposely disrupts the narrative flow, forcing the reader-listener to take a more active role.

All the stories—from the shortest (four pages) to the longest (sixty)—are generously told in a double sense, marked by an abundance of material and too by a kindliness that only occasionally lapses into sentimentality. Even the funniest possess an undercurrent of sadness, of loss and loneliness, of lives of quiet desperation and thwarted tenderness, an abiding sense of guilt and more especially of difference. Although depicted in more or less realistic style, Gurganus’ characters are in fact grotesques in the manner of Sherwood Anderson and fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor.

The grotesquerie is especially evident in the five related (but interspersed) stories in which an apparently autobiographical character named Bryan figures so prominently, often as narrator looking back on his family and childhood. However, for all the pain suffered by Bryan and others made in his image, the stories are almost eerily upbeat. Like the Grandfather in “A Hog Loves Its Life,” they are “long-winded” but lovingly so, using “language like love” to make their characters seem “bigger”—more worthy of attention—than they might otherwise appear.

The very telling of these stories seems designed not only to enlarge but also to recollect and remember (in the root sense of these words), to console and reassure their narrators and readers alike. As the fifty-nine-year-old teller says at the end of “Blessed Assurance,” the collection’s last and longest peace, “There, I’ve told you. I’ll feel better. Thank you very much.” His “will” implies a hope and too, perhaps, a lingering doubt or, more likely, a lingering need, the unsatisfiable need to tell all.