Reviewed by Chris Timmons
This must be said as a mandatory prefatory statement: Countless novels have been written about the South, it being such a fertile topic, yet Wilton Barnhardt’s delightful novel Lookaway, Lookaway may top them all.
Barnhardt’s novel has it all: an expansive social view of the New South, frequently outrageous and supremely funny scenes, but nonetheless a shrewd understanding of what makes the South tick. At this point in its history, the South is a ticking time bomb—that is, it will soon parallel the “monoculture” of the rest of the plain and drab U.S. of A—blowing away its eccentricity and the various pretensions—aristocratic, genteel, what have you—that came along with it. Such local color has invested the South with its astonishingly imaginative folklore and tradition. Alas, its irremediable racist past makes the South a place of contending visions: a post-racial panacea for blacks, a reverse Great Migration, and a holdover for a still-present, but sly good ol’boy network. But don’t let that fading glory and conflict of visions sour your appreciation of Barnhardt’s novel. Through multiple character vignettes, Barnhardt explains that the South retains a healthy amount of regional absurdity. Lookaway, Lookaway profiles in full the upper-crust Jarvis family of Myers Park, North Carolina. Like most families, it is dysfunctional, neurotic, and in varying degrees aloof, sad, and pathetic. On first impression, the Jarvis family is unattractive: Each character seems to live in his or her own world, totally selfish, frittering away a fey existence of debutante balls, afternoon teas, Civil War reenactments, sorority sexcapades, and society intrigue. As in belle époque Europe, this aristocracy is vested in its decadence.
Certainly, it is Barnhardt’s intention to parody the reigning institutions of the New South, and the family, as in the Old, is still the foremost institution of the South.
That the Jarvis family seems to be quite distant from each other, hiding behind furtive actions and malicious secrets, makes Barndardt’s tale a little more than light melodrama; it is dark comedy of a kind that conveys the chilling degree to which the lampoonable behavior of the upper-social strata can be a morally corrosive agent and unwholesome business: effortless blackmailing in order to appear socially pristine or to maximize one’s social position, the hedonist sororities and fraternities that turn out over-sexed and over-drugged young parasites, and the snobbery of old families against the arrivistes.
The latter would make the old families of Edith Wharton’s Old New York blush in the extent and reach of its reliance on lineage to justify itself. But Wharton’s families had better values.
For his purposes, Barnhardt must deal in types. He does this successfully. None of his characters live a full life of their own as fully realized or noteworthy individuals. But as a way of fully capturing the social reality—the full panorama, the complete social landscape in its precise and most devastating detail—they are exceptionally solid, if oft-stolid, creations.
In their particulars they seem to be failures of one type or another: Uncle Gaston, pinning for literary greatness, is reduced to writing passably bestselling Confederate potboilers; father Duke, promising political talent, is reduced to the mythic retired Southern gentleman and sloth; youngest son Joshua is aimless; daughter Annie is devastated by the Great Recession; Jerilyn is a victim of tabloid journalism; oldest son Bo suffers isolation from his arch-conservative church congregation, and increasingly, his wife.
Holding everything together is Jerene Jarvis, chairman of the Jarvis Trust for the Arts, and ideal of Southern womanhood in her polish and tough-as-nails personality.
Barnhardt is most assured not only in his appreciation of family pathos or harsh social reality but in the concrete cultural detail.
On gay subculture he is very sharp in his characterizations, and his astute handling of the dialogue of gay chatrooms, especially of black youth slang, matches up to the reality of that scene. Perhaps a better compliment would be: You could read a passage of it in his novel, go onto bgclive.com, and find the same thing.
There’s nothing funnier in the novel than the Confederate reenactment scene and if there were ever a desire to get a sense of the unreality and absurdity of the South, it is this remarkable theater of elaborately planned weekend play that the South makes as a tribute to being on the losing side of history.
Family dysfunction, a development gone wrong, a place losing its charm, a portrait of social vulgarity, the onrush of modernity, but above all else, as great entertainment: Lookaway, Lookaway is a novel worth the time.
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