Before he was an acclaimed fiction writer (Lookaway, Lookaway made several prestigious year’s best lists) Wilton Barnhardt was a sports writer. It shows in his appreciation of the details that help make yarns real and entertaining. And, no, Lookaway, Lookaway, is not another book about southern football. It’s about a far more desperate, violent, and intricate spectacle, the modern day dissolution of a Great Old Southern Family. Set in Charlotte, North Carolina, the “prefab” metropolis, with a “monster truck show” religious scene, Lookaway, Lookaway is a satire. While funnier in tone than Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full and more outrageous than Pat Conroy, it rings at least as true as either.
This is the epic saga of the Jarvis-Johnston clan. Duke, the patriarch is under the spell of his storied Civil War ancestor, General Joseph E. Johnston. Jerene, his wife, is the steel magnolia matriarch and the de facto patriarch (“Who cares what Duke does?”). The intricately plotted story unfolds in chapters narrated from the point of view of every family member in turn, each revealing their own and each other’s secrets. Good little debutante Jerelyn goes off to Chapel Hill to join a sorority whose sisters go by the nickname “the Skanks” (real sorority, real nickname, by the way). Brother Josh spends his nights seeking interracial romance on CDL, Charlotte Down Low, a gay hook-up website. Dorie, Josh’s black lesbian BFF seduces fine southern ladies. Calamities ensue and are revealed: rape, murder, grand larceny, society gala fundraisers, illegitimate children, abortions, domestic violence, Christmas dinner, interracial lust, feuding Presbyterian congregations, dueling, beastiality, blackmail, betrayal, Civil War battle re-enactments. The regional variations of Carolina barbeque, hush puppies, and cole slaw are explicated.
Lookaway, Lookaway is an exploration of the myth of the Great Old Southern Family. Although that myth does not enjoy the dominance in southern culture it once did, it still has millions of devotees. Its shrines, southern show-mansions stuffed with antiques, are maintained by private families and municipalities at great expense throughout the south. Barnhardt’s acid satire should, at the very least, inspire the reader to wonder at the hypocrisy, fragility and ruinous cost of Great Old Southern Family pretensions. As grandmother Jeannette tells her stone-hard daughter, Jerene, “It is naïve to think that anybody that has got money got it without doing something really bad, because it is much easier to be poor—that, my girl, is the natural state of things. Money runs out. Money gets spent. To have so much of it that it doesn't run out, doesn't get spent, means that something…. unpleasant had to happen along the way.”
Jerene, the matriarch, is the great character. She first commands the reader’s attention when she lays down the law for her daughter, who is experiencing a teachable moment, “Darling, in the future, you may not invite to a bed any young man about whom you do not know his father’s profession, his eventual means, his status in this world. That is a one-way ticket to the mobile home park. These are most important details.” Thus, from mother to daughter, hard earned wisdom is imparted and the Great Old Southern Family is maintained.
We know Jerene, and the awful Jeannette. We know Josh, brother Beau, sister Annie, Aunt Dillard (Jerene to her sister Dillard, “You may not become a cat lady. You may not become eccentric beyond a certain point.”) daddy Duke, wife Kate and Uncle Gaston. And we know bits and pieces of all of these stories that wrap around the Jarvis-Johnstons in their decline.
Readers who enjoy the works of Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, and Clyde Edgerton will not want to miss Lookaway, Lookaway.