I never read “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” nor any of Allan Gurganus’ other novels, but I heard a discussion about “Local Souls”(CLICK HERE FOR BOOK LINK) on NPR a while ago and thought it and Mr. Gurganus sounded interesting. I did nothing as funds were short at the time and I have that famous pile and storage unit full of books “to be read.” But I then heard the interview again on NPR last week (I think- CLICK HERE) and had a holiday book-gift card vibrating with its “Use Me” vibe and so, well … you know the rest.
The book is three novellas connected by place, Falls, North Carolina, and the voice is Southern-subtly sardonic. Mr. Gurganus’ many gifts include his ability to communicate his affection for his mostly well-delineated characters while skewering their all-too-human peccadilloes with a mordant and incisive wit. The book began with my favorite of the three tales, “Fear Not” which was finally – for me – about the shaping and misunderstanding of what constitutes right and wrong and love, and how confusing and complicated can be that journey not just for those doing the loving, but those observing the doing.
Mr. Gurganus’ use of language and syntax is quite masterful, though the voice at first requires some effort to understand. The sentence structure is unique, almost awkward at times and I found myself re-reading sentences – sometimes for pleasure and sometimes to make certain I understood just what he’d meant to say and do with the patterns he’d chosen.
I felt that the third novella. “Decoy”, went on too long. For me -a man and writer who is well-known for going on too long – the tale became repetitive and while I thought I recognized how its primary relationship was meant to mirror or add to the backstory of the first novella, for me, the bromantic undercurrent was not quite successful. It felt as if it was meant to serve as commentary on envy and class structure, a narrative from which we were supposed to extract a subtext that remained inchoate to such a degree that in the end it was – for me – a muddle.
Some have compared Mr. Gurganus to Flannery O’Connor and other Southern novelists, but he is far less Gothic and Tragic (and I meant to capitalize those, thank you very much) than that. There is a dark undertow to his prose and plotting, but it doesn’t have the fire and brimstone foundation of religious judgment that do O’Connor and so many of the Southern classicists.
Now, please, these are cavils from a reader, not a critic. I am someone who greatly admires the technical and story-telling acumen of Mr. Gurganus and found the book to be a lovely and entertaining window into a certain time and place in history, a changing America in which we vacillate between the old rules – which we know no longer work nor can be applied – and the new rules, which are not really rules at all but, instead, suggestions from which we must all shape our own realities. Mr. Gurganus captures that brilliantly, firmly planting his characters in a universe where reality is plastic, open to wide interpretation, and one does what one can to survive and succeed.
Mr. Gurganus does both with this book and I may add his other works to that insurmountable pile of “to be read” in which I am drowning.