Stories and Novellas

By Allan Gurganus

Knopf. 252 pp. $21.95

Mimicry is a powerful narrative asset, and Allan Gurganus practices it like a virtuoso. In his strapping novel "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," and now in this delectable volume of stories, he produces the tone, syntax and cadence peculiar to a remarkable range of characters, including Walt Whitman.

In "Reassurance," the story in which Whitman figures as a volunteer nurse at a Union Army hospital, the narrator is a dead Pennsylvania soldier squaring accounts with his grieving mother from beyond the grave. Walt delivers his sporadic lines in a chafing, self-deprecatory manner that seems calculated not only to cheer up the sick but also to keep the lid on his own homoerotic impulses. Explaining his self-imposed mission, he jokes about his secret pastime of nominating new angels for Heaven from among Yankee invalids and Rebel prisoners. "And Frank," he says to the narrator, "I don't like to tease you with the suspense but it's between you and two other fellows, a three-way heat for the Archangel Gabriel."

Frank's speech, on the other hand, tumbles out pell-mell as he tries to utter everything on his ethereal mind in the flash of the moment. (As he reveals near the story's touching end, he is not so much a ghost as an "echo" of his mother's "own best self" that reaches her as she lies half-awake in bed one morning.) "My doctor's name was Dr. Bliss," he says, "and during the cutting of my leg, others kept busting into the tent, asking him stuff and telling him things and all calling him by name, Bliss, Bliss, Bliss, they said. It helped me to have that name and word drifting over the table where they worked on me so serious, and I thanked God neither you nor {Cousin} Emily would be walking in to see me spread out like that, so bare and held down helpless, like some boy."

The author's vocal repertoire encompasses salesmanese, African American funerary dithyrambs, post-debutante bridge-table chatter and redneck macho boasting. With a few exceptions, these are Southern voices -- specifically North Carolinian -- and Gurganus seems to have taken such care in getting them all down right that one thinks of Mark Twain's prefatory note to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," wherein he enumerates the various dialects wielded in the story and adds, "I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

The most amusing voice belongs to the paterfamilias in "Minor Heroism," a pillar of the local establishment whose coping mechanisms falter when presented with his eldest son Bryan's homosexuality. It was bad enough when the pillar and pillaress visited Bryan in New York only to find him rooming with a man who wore his fingernails painted black. Yet there is more. "I was not going to mention it," the pillar continues, "but as long as I've built up this much steam I might as well. Last spring, Bryan came down to his brother's wedding in Baltimore. We were glad he came. It was right that he should be there, but I won't even begin to describe the person, the creature, he brought along with him. Everyone who saw this particular person immediately got very disturbed. This particular person somehow managed to get into and spoil about half of Bradley and Elaine's wedding pictures." The passage owes its supernal archness to the author's refusal to describe "this particular person's" appearance, a maneuver that enlists each reader in conjuring his own vision of flamboyance on the far side of black-polished nails.

Of course, mimicry without substance would eventually jangle on the ear; but these stories are far from superficial. In the best of them, love and guilt commingle in an uneasy blend that inspired speech can barely hold in equilibrium. When her senile father-in-law makes a grotesque incursion into the bridge tournament she is throwing for 88 clubbable women, the hostess in "A Hog Loves Its Life" grimaces and dithers momentarily but then remembers her manners -- and her soul. "Ladies," she intones loud enough for them all to hear, "I want you to meet my father-in-law. A dear man."

In "Blessed Assurance" a white salesman of funeral insurance to poor black people finds himself wracked by regret for his firm's Draconian terms (miss two weekly premium payments in a row, and you lose everything you've poured into the policy) and by grief over the uninsured death of his favorite customer, an ancient woman who showed him unqualified kindness. Trying to work through both emotions belatedly, he unbends and speaks out at the rambunctious service for another black woman, into which he wanders almost at random.

There is also a suspenseful and carefully structured gay story, "Adult Art," in which a respectable married man picks up a younger bachelor. In the course of their long and uncertain preliminaries, the veteran discovers that beneath his partner's vacant good looks and dopey manner lie both a terrible need for human contact and a metallic determination to get it on his own terms. Ultimately, it's a story about how sex can segue into love even when the partners start out expecting far less.

Offhand, I can't think of a nit to pick from these stories. They have variety, humor, profundity and verbal dexterity, both inside and outside quotation marks. Now that the heat of reviewing them is off, I plan to reread and savor them at my leisure.

The reviewer is a Washington writer and editor.