First, some numbers. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is seven hundred and eighteen pages long. Each of these pages contains around five hundred and fifty words. Therefore by my calculations Allan Gurganus’s first novel is longer than either Moby Dick or Our Mutual Friend. It is ten times longer than Paul Sayer’s first novel, The Comforts of Madness.
Who has the time? Who can concentrate any more? Maybe John Cheever? Because on the dust jacket he says ‘I consider Allan Gurganus the most morally responsive and technically brilliant writer of his generation.’ But, hang on- Cheever died in 1981, so he hasn’t read this. Maybe Faber’s blurb writer, who tells us that this is ‘the story of the American South, from General Lee and Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King and the Challenger disaster’? I’m afraid not. There are two references to the Challenger disaster (one suspiciously near the beginning of the book, and neither more than three lines long), but I could find no reference to King. Who has the time, indeed? I am almost ashamed to admit that I have read the thing. One can imagine a Bateman cartoon depicting a group of busy literati (probably in our Editor’s new club) staring aghast at a hapless, redfaced creature and captioned ‘The Man Who Had Time To Read The Gurganus Novel’.
The Oldest Living Confederate Widow is Lucille Marsden, nonagenarian resident of an old people’s home in the South, and narrator of all but one section of the novel. Lucille is a curator of stories: her husband Will’s old Civil War stories, her mother-in-law’s stories of the last great days of