Adventures in Reading

Lambda Challenge: The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus

For the Lambda Challenge: Allan Gurganus’ The Practical Heart is a collection of four novellas that won a Lambda Award for Gay Men’s Fiction in 2001. Fortunately, I had access to a statewide search of university libraries or I would never have been able to find this book [1]. All of the novellas occur or incorporate the fictional city of Falls, North Carolina.

The first novella “The Practical Heart” is a brilliant duel tale of Muriel who led a difficult life and either had her portrait painted by John Singer Sargent… or didn’t. The two stories within the novella were marvelous explorations of class, relationship, age, and sexuality. After finishing it I was decided it was the best in the collection. The second novella “Preservation News” explores the life of a man, Tad, post-mortem through an article he wrote and editor’s comments following it. Tad spent his life saving the decaying and decrepit mansions of the south, and his story is as much told from the editor as the architecture and history of the houses. I read this and revised my opinion: No, this had to be the best story.

The final two novellas in the collection “He’s One, Too” and “Saint Monster” are both told from the perspective of a boy growing into adulthood. Both novellas are explorations of the Other, the outsider, the unwanted, the unaccepted, the inappropriate. Told from the additional perspectives of the white, middle, and suburban class, the reader watches these young boys idolize and love an adult man. While I did not find these two to be nearly as contagious as the first two novellas, they are the two pieces that left me thinking and reconsidering the most.

I loved, loved, loved this collection. Gurganus has a wonderful narrative voice that individualizes the characters and story. I felt that each story was written by an entirely different author, but still manages to flow and interweave into each other. As a writer, Gurganus has a gentle touch and maneuvers well between emotional extremes without (or rarely) overdoing it.

[1] Well, without purchasing it and I’m a bit cash poor these days.

Conclusion: Returned to the library.


Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison

“Death changes everything.”

Dorothy Allison’s Cavedweller completely blew my mind. Attempting to continue my challenge of reading books I already own, I asked my partner to pick out a book for me. With completely different literary tastes and his partiality for non-fiction and poetry, I knew he would approach the selection with a different criterion than I would. I devoured Cavedweller in great heaping bites and with my eyes glittery and exhausted by the time I finished the novel.

Delia is an ex-rock-n-roller that escaped a small southern town and an abusive relationship. When her lover and lead singer of Mud Dog Randall dies, Delia has the urge to return to her childhood home with her youngest daughter Cissy. Part of Delia’s attraction to return home is her craving and the haunting of the two “babies” she left behind to escape her marriage. The novel stretches over years as Delia struggles to reacquaint her family.

Some of the themes coursing through Cavedweller are entirely predictable if not clichéd. The maternal and female struggles, the idea of the earth as mother, Cissy’s “rebirth” as she leaves the cave are a few examples. However, Allison deals with them with extraordinary grace and the greatest of poise – despite the regularity of these themes Allison gives them freshness.

Allison does write in dialect at times and overall the book requires some very close reading. Each word in the book seems of great importance and I must admit it’s the first novel I have read in quite some time where I did not scan at all. I did, however, have to reread the first chapter before I became accustomed to Allison’s style.

After finishing Cavedweller I mooched Bastard out of Carolina – perhaps the best known of Allison’s book from Bookmooch. She is definitely an author I want to spend more time with.

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