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DG MARTIN COLUMN: Allan Gurganus takes us back to Falls

What is going on in Falls, North Carolina?

It is an insiders’ question, but don’t be put off. I am going to explain and bring you into the fold.

D.G. Martin

Falls is a fictional small town near Rocky Mount where famed North Carolina author Allan Gurganus grew up. Although Gurganus has built a legacy of great writing, art and advocacy, he is still best known for his debut novel, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” That book, set in Falls, came out in 1989 and rushed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list where it stayed for months.

Gurganus has taken his readers back to Falls on a regular basis. The town is the setting for several stories in his latest book, “The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus,” which comes out next month.

One story in the new book, “The Deluxe $19.95 Walking Tour of Historic Falls (NC),” takes a hard look at the town from a tour guide’s perspective. Here is part of her pitch to her customers.

“Moving along nicely. No stragglers, please. Incorporated in 1824, almost immediately made the county seat, Falls still boasts five thousand local souls. We’re down from our peak seven-thousand during the commercial boom of ’98, 18–98. See that arched bridge? Some say that yonder River Lithium accounts for both our citizens’ soothed temperaments and for how hard we find leaving home. Few local students, matriculating up north, last long there.”

The guide, who is the story’s narrator explains, “On the cheap tour, I lead Yankees straight to Town Hall right past secret sites of major vigilante mishaps. Mind you, I withhold nothing out of laziness. I simply foresee which group is historically minded — like you all are.”

Longtime fans of Gurganus will appreciate the inside look at his favorite town. Newcomers will find that the tour of Falls forms the basis for another engaging Gurganus tale.

The new book includes one of my favorites. In “A Fool for Christmas” Vernon Ricketts, a pet store manager in a mall near Falls, is the lead character and narrator. He is the fool for Christmas who cannot resist a call to take care of a homeless teenager, keep her warm and help her hide from the security officer, who is dedicated to getting such undesirables out of the mall. The teenager is pregnant, and Gurganus’ story draws on the Biblical account of Christ’s birth in a way that brings out the same sort of deep feelings.

Gurganus wrote this story for NPR’s All Things Considered in 2004 and read it on the program. He has rewritten it regularly. Last year it made its way into print in a limited edition that sold out quickly. The story’s inclusion makes certain the new book will be a family treasure.

Perhaps the book’s most timely story is “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” which was published first in The New Yorker in April. Set in a rural village in the Midwest during a cholera epidemic in 1850, a young doctor does his best to save its citizens. But when many die, the doctor is blamed.

How did Gurganus manage to time his story to coincide with the current pandemic?

Gurganus says he finished the story early this year, “on the day that coronavirus appeared for the first time in The New York Times. And the context was completely changed. I sent it to my agent who sent it to The New Yorker, which bought it in a day and it appeared two weeks later.”

These stories and six more will remind us of the talented North Carolinian’s ability to laugh painfully at ourselves and our neighbors, holding us in waiting for Gurganus’ promised, but long delayed, opus, “An Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.