Allan Gurganus tells all

The trio of heroes at the center of Plays Well With Others (Vintage, 1999), the new novel by Allan Gurganus, is so brilliant, so good-looking and glossy with youth, they can — quite literally — charm the pants off people.

The three are: Robert Gustafson, a composer celebrated as “the prettiest boy in New York of his decade”; Angie “Alabama” Byrnes, a 5-foot-tall former Southern belle with the butt of a boy and an outsize talent for painting; and the novel’s narrator, Hartley Mims Jr., a Southern writer discovering his own talent with words — even as he revels in the talents and quirks of his friends. Together, they form a bond as strong as adoration, lust, necessity, keen Cuban coffee, and shared ambition can make it.

Set in the New York City of the early ’80s, Plays Well With Others remembers a time when words like “work” and “play” weren’t mutually exclusive. Hartley, Robert and Angie make the rounds of glamorous parties, where Rolling Stones with “rocky butts” toothsomely frolic, and these experiences form as much of the trio’s education as trips to the Museum of Modern Art — or, for that matter, to the laundromat. Culture — be it Vermeer, Mahler or Donna Summer — is not so much to be appreciated as consumed, digested, and spit back in the form of words, melodies, hastily painted pictures and (sometimes) scathing exchanges.

The entrance of AIDS into this milieu is like a voice offstage — heard but not understood. Until, of course, the voice becomes too loud, too persistent to be ignored.

For admirers of Gurganus’ previous novel, the best-selling Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (Random House, 1989), Plays Well With Others may represent a radical shift. And it is. But they’ll find that Gurganus’ touch for illuminating what is both comic and hugely moving in life remains unchanged.

From his home in “a village of 2,500 souls” near Raleigh, Gurganus talked to Xpress about finding humor in the darkest corners, as well as his take on sundry other topics — such as the importance of family values, the metaphysics of lawn care, and the best graduate-school alternative he’s ever found.

Can report cards tell the future?

MX: In the novel, the phrase “plays well with others” is revealed to have come from Angie’s second-grade report card. And I read somewhere that it was actually a quote from one of your own report cards.

AG: That’s right. The title came from my second-grade teacher, who said, “Allan talks too much in class, sits with the girls,” [laughs] “is creative yet messy, but plays well with others.” And I’ve always thought of that as one of the most condescending and damning kinds of praise imaginable. But after living through the ’80s in New York, I discovered that playing well with others is really a large part of living an integrated, communal life. This novel is very much about the heroism and necessity of caretaking. Too many books written by Americans are about troublemakers, or the person who comes to town and makes a mess and then leaves.

MX: Do you mean the romance of that?

AG: Yeah. I think we’re all the great-grandchildren of people who were scamps, scalawags and runaways. So we have a kind of tendency as a nation to make a mess and leave it. … But I think that my heroines and heroes tend to be the people who clean up after other people and mythologize others. They’re middle-class people, who are still in touch with the drama of life. And if you can tell middle-class secrets, you’ve really broken through some extraordinarily difficult codes, because we’re all brought up being told to keep our secrets and not tell the neighbors.

On the educative quality of sleeping with others

MX: You’ve mentioned people’s sense of responsibility and community. And yet I think a lot of people would pick up Plays Well With Others and find it outrageous. Do you think it’s interesting to bring around those juxtapositions in what people expect?

AG: I guess if I had any interest in making real money, I would just rewrite Oldest Living Confederate Widow. You know, Oldest Living Dog Tells All. Oldest Living Member of the Chickamahwah Tells All.” [Laughs] But your fiction has to stay in touch with what your real obsessions are and what you’re learning in the world. And it seems to me that, though there’s a lot of sexual experimentation in the book, there’s a kind of innocence connected to it. Now, people call it “promiscuity”; But then, we used to call it “popularity.”

MX: I came along a generation or so after yours, and it sometimes seems to me that yours got to have a lot more fun.

AG: Well, you have to be careful — we didn’t have to be. As I say in the book, there was nothing that penicillin couldn’t cure — or crab lotion. And what nobody ever talks about is how much one learned by going out on Friday or Saturday night and going home with somebody almost consistently. I sometimes say that I’ve learned more from going home with people sexually than I did from graduate school.

MX: And isn’t that true in the sexual sense, as well as what you pick up from whatever records they’re playing or what novels they have sitting on their bedside table?

AG: For a novelist, it’s especially interesting to see how people live. And of course, after people have sex — or haven’t — they tell their secrets. And you see what accouterments of their trade are in their house, and [what] family photographs. [You see] how dirty their towels are — if they even have towels.

So my experience was one night to be with [a] house painter and the next night to be with a Spanish count. And it was just an amazing education. Especially for someone from North Carolina, who had only been exposed to Presbyterians who make $50,000 a year and nothing under.

On Southern-fried literature

MX: It seems funny to me that reviews have hailed Plays Well With Others as being in the tradition of Southern writers like Faulkner and Welty, yet the novel is such a praise song to New York City.

AG: There’s a great tradition [of that], in some ways. Thomas Wolfe comes to mind as a person whose scale — both from being 6-foot-7 and just his gigantic sense of self, his colossal ego, among other things — qualified him for a city that size.

MX: How do you feel about the Faulkner, Welty moniker? Did you just snort when I said that?

AG: Oh, no. Oh, no. [Hastily] I’m in deep homage to both of them.

MX: Yet when I’m reading you, they’re not who you remind me of.

AG: Yeah. I think I’ve absorbed those influences and gone on to something that’s, I hope, my own. And it’s not that I’m one of those people who only reads Southern writing. To me, Chekhov is my god, and I read him more often than anybody else. … World literature is really where I am. I think there’s some great things being done in North Carolina and in the South right now. But there’s also a lot of junk being written.

MX: Isn’t it so?

AG: And nobody will talk about that. Everybody wants to say, “Gee willikers! Every house is publishing a novel.” But it’s easy to be banal about the South, the material has been worked so often. When Margaret Mitchell retired, she created so many stereotypes that have been recycled. It’s very hard to find something fresh to say about the South.

MX: And a fresh way to say it.

AG: Well, I think a lot of this third- and eighth-tier Southern writing has as much to do with the real South as cutesy country shops in the mall have to do with living on the farm — mucking out the horse stall, feeding the chickens at 5 a.m. Instead, they show these little girls in gingham bonnets leading a row of geese of diminishing size, and it has nothing to do with life.

30 casserole dishes

MX: In Plays Well With Others, Hartley leaves New York to move back to a small town in North Carolina. And [the book] mentions that, once back, he’s asked to join the town’s volunteer fire department: Is that something that happened to you?

AG: I’ve been really pulled into the life of the town. And I say that as if I had nothing to do with it. Of course, I’m interested.

But when you live through an experience like losing all [of the people in] your address book, some part of you becomes exhausted to the extent that you think, “I’ll never do this again. I’ll never love the way I loved there and then.” But you do. Reality and the interesting complications of life won’t let you hide very long.

And thank God that we’re always being pulled back. Even people who are holed up in nursing homes and can’t walk and have to have their diapers changed are waiting for Oprah to come on at 4 o’clock. It’s amazing what you can live on, if forced. [Laughs]

MX: Are there things about moving back that surprised you, that you had forgotten? I’m originally from Wisconsin, and sometimes I’ll forget what my own memories of my hometown are like, and only remember the place as if it’s a scene from Fargo.

AG: Yes. Some people who’ve come to visit have said, “It’s true your neighbors are nice to you, but they don’t really mean it.” And I say, “Whatever causes people to be kind to me to my face is fine with me.” You know, it’s the opposite of a 13-year-old reader of Mad magazine who can only see adult hypocrisy in everything.

MX: A Holden Caulfield.

AG: You begin to realize that there are real reasons that people seat boy/girl, boy/girl at dinner parties, or that you’re expected to write a thank-you note within six months of the wedding present. For most people, these forms are necessary, because they provide a frame and a kind of good sense.

And when there’s a death in the family, there’s something very comforting about finding three or four casseroles — most of them are hastily made and are mostly noodles — on the front porch, with freezer tape telling you who to bring the bowl back [to]. It’s just a great, incandescent sign of life continuing, of the power of community and friendship.

What’s wrong with America now?

MX: Do you read your reviews?

AG: Yeah, I do, unfortunately. Some people say they have the discipline not to read their reviews. But what you find is that, even if you decide not to read your reviews, people will call you up and say, “Don’t believe a word of what they say about you on page 6 of the Journal!” …

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