Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: August 20th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Humor
I’ll do my best not to overindulge in Civil War metaphors but I tore through Lookaway Lookaway faster than Sherman went through Atlanta. Wilton Barnhardt has written an addictive novel of the contemporary south. He combines the best and the worst of old and new in a way that is expansive and intimate. The story is about the Johnston family. Matriarch Jerene is the epitome of the South with her impeccable manners, flawless feminine appearance and a will so strong she’d make a steel magnolia cry. Her husband Duke was a potential candidate for governor in the great state of North Carolina until he decided Civil War re-enactments and preservation were his calling. They have four adult children and a passel of relatives who cause more aggravation than delight.
Barnhardt mixes this eccentric eclectic bunch like the best rum punch, steps back, and watches as the reader is intoxicated by their stories. There is Bo, the hapless pastor, Joshua, the gay son everyone pretends is not, and Jerilyn, the daughter who desires her mother’s life for her own future. When she does summit marriage mountain her older sister, Annie, who is the antithesis of their mother—oversized, uninterested in her appearance, overly ambitious, and loud—thinks only
It’s as if some wicked masculine committee in charge of Life had known that women would worry their pretty little heads over all this rigmarole and thereby leave the running of the big important world to the men, who would look upon all the flounces and frills, tears and hysteria, with a knowing wink, a nudge in the side, “Told you that’d keep ‘em occupied.”
Jerene’s side of the family offers oversized personalities and stories best personified by her bombastic brother Gaston, a famous writer of romance novels, who loves the money but can’t quite brush the chip off his shoulder.
Mind you when they have a state literary festival or some fund-raiser to raise lucre, who do they call to fill the tent? It’s either me or Anne Rice or Pat Conroy with a line around the block while the Algonquin and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Grove and Vintage and Holt and Norton authors, the MFA program parasites, les artistes, who couldn’t sell five thousand books collectively, cluster and lurk and complain to each other at the cocktail parties, make a meal out of the hors d’oevres like starving undergraduates, brag about who endured the least attended event, wear their obscurity proudly—always ready to be assured, on cue, in rotation, the New York Times or the Washington Post or some momentarily venerated blog said just-wonnnnnderful things about their last title. How they all cling to each other in the literati life raft, what a comfort they all are to each other—
Lookaway Lookaway perfectly encapsulates both the repression and raunch in today’s South. The old guard is trying to stand firm with its etiquette, class structure, and appearances while the young are trying to break it all down with consumerism, alternate lifestyles, and ambition-less attitudes. Barnhardt captures it all with uproarious prose and style but by giving the ancillary characters their own chapters he provides ballast to the debutante appearance of all things Johnston. Through their point-of-view Lookaway Lookaway goes beyond cocktail party gossip and country club misbehavior to some of the not-so-funny truths that lie beyond the velvet portieres. As Jerene would say:
“Almost anything can be undone, but some things cannot be undone once committed to. They can merely be decided upon. And you have to make such a decision—a decision that will absolutely conclude the matter in question.”