— Allegiance, by Gurney Norman (Ohio University Press 2021)
Even though he is not a prolific author – he has published just four works of fiction in the last five decades – Kentucky’s Gurney Norman’s body of work has earned him a major place in Appalachian literature. The reissue of Allegiance, a collection of short stories and vignettes in a primarily autobiographical key, is as good an introduction as any Norman title to a world of close connection to the land, acute observation of both human interactions and nature, and an engaging, poetic voice that captures the pure joy of storytelling.
Originally issued by Old Cove Press in 2020, Allegiance treads familiar territory for readers of Norman. Still, one does not need to be acquainted with his other writings to enjoy this volume. One of its recurring characters is Norman’s alter ego, Wilgus Collier, who we see throughout different stages of his life, from early childhood to maturity.
In “Linville Price,” Wilgus reminisces about the character who gives the name to the story, “known for his eccentric and sometimes shady dealings with people.” Price is a lovable crook who rips off folk through petty scams but somehow is charming enough to prevent his victims, including Wilgus, from holding him accountable. In “Uncle Jake’s Grave,” a woman makes an annual trip to a family cemetery in an area that was strip-mined and requires “a four-wheel drive vehicle to get past the mud and rocks and uprooted trees that had slid down the hill.”
It is not a coincidence that the title of Norman’s first story collection is Kinfolks (1977), since the connection with one’s kin remains one of the strongest themes in his newer stories. Many of the anecdotes and recollections in Allegiance revisit the characters of Kinfolks, just like other pieces expand on his mythical folktale novella Ancient Creek, which was originally issued as a spoken-word record in 1975.
Stories of a Home County
A creative writing teacher at the University of Kentucky, Norman has had a storied life from which to draw autobiographical fiction. Raised in a coal camp in Eastern Kentucky, he went on to study creative writing in Stanford University alongside writers Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey. Living in San Francisco, he was one of the editors and writers of the legendary countercultural publication, The Whole Earth Catalog, where his first novel (Divine Right’s Trip) was serialized in 1971 and published as a book the following year.
Several of Norman’s stories have been made into short films, including “Fat Monroe,” starring Ned Beatty. Collectively known as The Wilgus Stories, these films have screened in the New York Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival (the film’s director, Andrew Garrison, has the film available for public viewing here on Vimeo.com). Norman has also written and narrated documentaries for public television, all of which showcase his passion for the history and geography of Kentucky.
“Regional writing is not much understood,” Norman once said, reminiscing on how his work as a young journalist for a small weekly publication, the Hazard Herald, showed him “the infinite kinds of human experience” that went on in his home county. “I knew I had found my place in the world, as a writer, and that what a writer might need is simply a home county.” It is through this lens that Norman turns stories of family and lore into engaging fiction of universal appeal.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza