1991 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZES : FICTION : Milk of Human Kindness

Childress is the author of the novels "A World Made of Fire," "V for Victor" and "Tender." He lives in San Francisco.

The work of the very best writers leaves a taste in the mouth, a particular flavor that lingers after nuances of plot and character have faded. As a Southerner, I know that William Faulkner's prose tastes inevitably of sour-mash whiskey, while Eudora Welty's lovely sentences are rich and delicate tea cakes, offered up one at a time from a nice china plate. Flannery O'Connor's stories have the bite of a briny dill pickle, which is to disparage neither dill pickles nor Flannery; the writer's personality is so vivid on the page that instinctively you know she would have had no patience for tea cakes.

Critics and fans keep trying to stick Allan Gurganus in that kitchen with Flannery and Bill and Miss Welty, and certainly nobody would protest the company. Like Faulkner, Gurganus is concerned with myth and memory; like Welty, he strip-mines layers of Southern manners to get at the naked truth; like O'Connor, his characters' actions always imply a larger scheme to the world than mortals can understand. But Gurganus' work has its own distinct flavor. "White People," a collection of stories and novellas following on his phenomenal first novel "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," overflows with the buttermilk of human kindness.

The velvety sentences just come rolling out, smoothly folding and lapping over at the ends, but it's more than a matter of sentences. It's a hundred tiny moments of kindness bestowed and withheld, and keenly observed. It's a writer reminding you that sweet good writing can even make you feel better about your own existence.

In "A Hog Loves Its Life," an old man has just taken his grandchildren to see his wife in the hospital for one last visit before she dies. At the wheel of his old car he suddenly bursts into tears. The mortified children look on: "Four child hands touched his shoulder, touched the lined, glazed neck. Our Packard lurched forward just as the light turned red. A screeching bread truck swerved to miss us. Sidewalk shoppers covered their upper faces. 'Joyride,' Grand explained to the dashboard. His eyes were locked straight ahead. In back, we kept very still, not exactly holding hands (it was not that kind of family) but feeling comforted by all the cousinly little legs and shoulders pressing against our legs, our shoulders."

In that last sweeping sentence, the parenthetical summation of a family punctuated by the breathtakingly apt invention of the word "cousinly," the author evokes a whole world of love: the old man's love for his wife, for these kids; the kids' more instinctive love for him and for each other. This is a moment of time suspended between epochs. Gurganus does all this in one sentence. He makes it look easy.

These stories range wide in form, distance and style. "Nativity, Caucasian" hilariously details the unexpected birth of its protagonist in the middle of a fancy ladies' bridge party, complete with the ruination of the hostess' heirloom damask tablecloth. "America Competes" and "It Had Wings" are pure fable. "Adult Art" is a dark, vaguely creepy tale, the seduction of a gawky younger man by the local superintendant of schools. "Minor Heroism," "Breathing Room" and "A Hog Loves Its Life" are interconnected stories, tracing the emotional lives of three generations of men in a North Carolina family.

These are decent people, by and large, or at least they consider themselves trying to be decent. But sometimes life forces them to act indecently, and the author never shirks from defining these moments.

In the extraordinary novella "Blessed Assurance," subtitled "A Moral Tale," our hero is Jerry, a poor white boy from a cotton-mill family who has taken a part-time job collecting on burial-insurance policies from even poorer black folks. Although Jerry needs the money to put himself through college, he knows from the outset this is morally dubious work. "Only thing, buddy," his boss warns him, "if they miss two weeks running, they forfeit. . . . I don't care if they've put in thousands and several of your older clients will have, if they let one, then two (count them) two big Saturdays roll by, their pile becomes the company's."

Of course Jerry winds up attached to some of his pitiful "clients," and while he carries them from week to week he knows he must eventually betray them. He makes friends with one special old lady, and in the ensuing tragicomedy Jerry plays alternate roles of Judas and penitent sinner, making wild stabs at redemption. "Everybody expects a few sure things, a bit of blessed assurance," he cries out, years later. "A person wants to feel covered. . . . I've never once credited any type of heaven."

This kind of finely honed conscience-seeking is just what John Gardner went to his grave demanding: moral fiction. In case anyone thought the success of "Confederate Widow" was a fluke, the stories in "White People," written over the years 1972-1989, prove that Allan Gurganus has been an important writer for a while now. It's just taken the world a while to catch on.

Fiction Prize

WHITE PEOPLE, by Allan Gurganis (Alfred A. Knopf)

Nominees

THE ACACIA, by Claude Simon (Pantheon Books)

AGE OF IRON, by J. W. Coetzee (Random House)

WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK, by Sandra Cisneros (Random House)

A WOMAN'S STORY, by Annie Ernaux (Four Walls Eight Windows)

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