Review: Lookaway, Lookawayby Wilton Barnhardt
Comedic entertainment was the reason I was drawn to Lookaway, Lookaway in the first place. Previews lauded it as a deliciously dishy look at the Southern country club set and their good-time Greek-life offspring. As a Southerner myself, the touch-the-pearls cover art had me reaching for the popcorn (and wine), ready to sink into a satiric send-up of the moneyed crew in Charlotte, N.C., near where I grew up.
Lookaway delivered with a fabulously snarky take on all that can be rich-kitsch in the South: cotillions, country clubs, family secrets, deadly serious Civil War reenactments, debutantes, divas, and grown women calling their fathers "daddy." Perfect.
And at the center of it all is the dysfunctional Jarvis/Johnston family, a motley crew of loud-mouths, spoiled girls, society matrons, and crazy uncles. The heart of the blue-blood tribe is Jerene Jarvis Johnston, a dynamite doyenne with a mighty triple-J monogram on her silver who shepherds her brood through triumph and tragedy with a cool hand wrapped in a silk glove. While each family member has a say in Lookaway, with a chapter detailing his or her slice of life and also moving the plot forward, Jerene is always in the middle of it all like every good "steel magnolia."
But, just as I thought I had Lookaway all figured out, Barnhardt delivered a one-two punch of bittersweet twists and on-the-mark writing, revealing a slice of tragedy under the coating of comedy. The Southern voice is a true one – not the cornpone-and-julep version that makes me grit my teeth. And there is enough pathos to tip a hat to the very best of the Southern Gothic tradition.
I realized I was close to shedding a tear (heaven forfend) over Jerene's daughter Jerilyn and her not-to-be-spoken-of time in college, Jerene's sad sister Dillard, the sweetly befuddled Duke Johnston and his thwarted career in real estate, and pastor Bo, who struggles to fit in at his own church.
Yes, there was plenty of humor in characters like Jerene's mother Jeanette, who refuses to acknowledge reality. Or in Gaston Jarvis, a frustrated famous author who wishes he could step away from his schlocky-but-successful set of Civil War novels. But there was also a sense of misspent-youth and anger in Gaston that kept him from slipping into a buffoonish character.
Gaston also delivers the best homage to Southern homesickness, thanks to Barnhardt's deft writing: "He longed to instead be driving on the tar-patched macadam of N.C. Highway 49, speeding from Charlotte to Durham, still an undergraduate racing back to campus in his rattletrap used car, the red earth of the roadside embankments, the surprise views of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains, that upland ridge connected to no other, smack in the middle of the state for no logical geological reason, dense green woods crowded with deer, roadside vegetable stands with hand-painted signs, red painted scrawl on a whitewashed board, that last chance in September for a taste of the Sandhills peaches..."
Those memories, and that writing, can start up a yearning in me that can't be described to someone who didn't grow up here.
That's the yin and yang of the South, the push and pull of our love for place and family, and our railing against its shortcomings and faults. It's why the Southern literature genre is so rich and why we Southerners can't imagine life in any other way.
Author Interview: Wilton Barnhardt
Lookaway's author Wilton Barnhardt was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his Southern roots, "steel magnolia" women, and his favorite Southern authors. He must have heard me muttering "please say Faulkner, please say Faulkner" as I sent him the questions...
I grew up outside Charlotte and the Myers Park clique that you so perfectly captured in Lookaway, Lookaway. You also grew up on the fringes of that “moneyed” group in North Carolina – how did that shape you, and this book?
Wilton Barnhardt: My dad was a chemist at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, my mom a schoolteacher, so we were not High Society or even low society. But in my day, rich kids and aristocratic scions actually went to public high school so I got to meet people from the upper echelons. It was really their mothers who fascinated me – the bearing, the dress, the perfect appearance, so different from my earnest harried homemaker Mom. Since I've been in the arts and in the MFA world down here at NC State, I have mingled with my share of the elite as well, since we spend a lot of time fundraising and schmoozing – but also just plain socializing, since the well-off are often the cultured, well-read people, too. I'm sort of a grubby kid outside the mansion looking in, but, like lots of American writers before me, I am fascinated by the privileged and their rules and rituals.
Which of the Jarvis/Johnston family members do you most relate to yourself? Is there a part of you in any of them? Or in all of them?
WB: All of them, a little bit. I've got Annie's weight problem and big mouth!
One thing I appreciated about Lookaway, is that even with the satire, the Civil War reenactments, the country clubs, and the debutante balls, you didn’t fall into a mean-spirited indictment of the South. Each character represents something good and something flawed about Southerners. Too often we’re lumped in as one general stereotype – what is the one generalization that you find most unfair about the South?
WB: I'm happy you said that. Because we're so traditional (another way of saying we can't escape from our history), people imagine we're not modern or at the cutting edge of technology or art like anywhere else in the country. They're surprised to meet game-designers and software pioneers with Southern accents. We're also assumed – the whites, anyway – to have a monopoly on racism. I think racism is mostly alive in our politics, but not so much in our day-to-day mingling and socializing. Ghettos seem to me a Northern template; a lot of the work of integration goes on every day in the South in a way it doesn't always up north.
I love your send-up of a steely Southern matriarch in Jerene Johnston, showing that most Southern women may soften their consonants while at the same time hardening their resolve. You have said your own mother is most definitely not the inspiration for Jerene, but don’t you find that all Southern women have a bit of that ‘steel magnolia’ inside them?
WB: Not all, I suppose, but the interesting Southern women are always are tough as nails. That may be a stereotype, for both black and white, the matriarchal unbreakable titan... but that one's truer than most!
Like Gaston Jarvis in the book, you “ran away” from the South, intent on never coming back. And, just like so many other Southerners, you were sucked back in. I thought you perfectly captured that feeling with Gaston’s longing for the memories and sensory experience of riding along the highway between Charlotte and Durham. What did you long for when you were away from the South?
WB: Our people look a certain country way. The red clay banks on the side of a tar-patched concrete highway through rolling hills of jungle-like vegetation and an overlay of kudzu, devouring abandoned shacks and telephone poles. Barbecue. Good black preaching on an AM station, fading in then fading out. Roadside peach stands.
You have said that you will only write one Southern novel. Why only one?
WB: I try not to repeat myself on anything – in part, to focus myself, to say everything I have to say when I'm on a subject. I have a European novel next, then a Western.
Who are your favorite Southern writers and why?
WB: Faulkner and Welty are the twin towers. For living writers, it's hard to beat Ron Rash and Jill McCorkle in short stories; Edward P. Jones, Valerie Martin, Gail Godwin; I try not miss what George Singleton and Percival Everett get up to, south of the Carolina border. No one does what Lee Smith does better than Lee Smith. I send my students to Pinion by Claudia Emerson and Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt – books of poetry as deep and satisfying a narrative as any novel.
Did you really research Lookaway by hanging around sorority houses at Chapel Hill during Rush Week? Did you have any run-ins with the sorority sisters themselves who wondered why you were there? Sounds like another novel waiting to happen…
WB: I'm sure they took no notice of me! It was actually their public blogs and rush accounts that helped me most. I went to the statewide Debutante Ball in Raleigh, too; visited a Civil War renactment. That's the most fun part of writing – the so-called research.