REVIEW: Wilton Barnhardt’s 'Lookaway, Lookaway' top shelf

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 10:42 AM

This past week at a reading of his new book, “Lookaway, Lookaway,” Wilton Barnhardt told the crowd at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham that reviewers were giving away some plot details of the North Carolina-set Southern novel. So this reviewer will do her best to hold back some twists of the Jarvis Johnston family that make this the fabulous Southern novel that it is. And by Southern, an example of gloriously flawed characters and epic storytelling and a hilarious clash of Old South and New South and flair for the dramatic without being a novel that uses “I declare” with abandon. I don’t think “I declare” is in this novel at all, but if it were, perhaps used the way this North Carolinian has heard it – casually in passing by a retired postal carrier, not emphatically by a woman in a large velvet dress.
Because this novel is already being reviewed by national media, here’s a review for those of us who live down South, not just have lived down South. “Lookaway, Lookaway” is set mostly in Charlotte, so those references will be lost on the rest of us, but the Old South family set-up knows more than just one city, and there must be people out there like that still, even in 2013. Jerene Jarvis Johnston is all about appearances, especially or in spite of her family’s fortunes being long gone. But they still have their big house and a roomful of art at the Mint, a real museum in Charlotte, that, Barnhardt said during The Regulator reading, has already ruffled its feathers, with a lawyer contacting the publisher. There’s plenty of fictional places but lots of real references, too, like the family surname, as Carolinians know, is that of the Civil War Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who surrendered the largest number of troops at Bennett Place in Durham. Jerene’s husband, Duke Johnston, received his nickname at, of course, Duke University.
So now come a few details if you’re looking for places to connect with locally and/or take umbrage. Keep in mind this is a novel. Each chapter in “Lookaway, Lookaway” is from the perspective of a different character, and they don’t circle back, so enjoy it while you can. Once the reader is embedded in the life of one family member, it’s time to move on to the next. It’s both filling and leaves you hungry. First up is the Johnston daughter Jerilyn, a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill. UNC comes off as a fratty mess, with drunk and drugged out sorority girls aplenty. Tar Heel alumni can verify or deny. The literary time on campus is brief, but shows the force that is Jerilyn’s mother, Jerene.
They are a family that you want to tsk-tsk but you also want to eat at Jerene’s holiday table, or rather, their cook’s table, because you know it’ll be a lovely meal with engaging conversation. And by engaging, a mix of spilled secrets, political arguments and attempts to sweep it under the rug until -- what was that? A gunshot? No more plot-sharing. It’s like a well-mannered, wealthy hootenanny at the Jarvis Johnston house. Who doesn’t want a rich drunk uncle who’s also a mass-market Southern author? That would be the character of Gaston, Jerene’s brother, and college buddy of Duke Johnston’s back when they made lofty goals as Duke University students.
Gaston does much of the skewering. A sample, referring to Duke University: “…and running across campus, by the grand cathedral-like bell tower that would make you think Duke University was immemorially old rather than a faux-Ivy League creation of tobacco money in the 1930s…”
Barnhardt told The Regulator crowd that Gaston is just abominable and the worst person in the book. Yet that is who a reader asked about. The character was great fun to write, Barnhardt said, and a combination of writers he’s met. Barnhardt teaches fiction in the master of fine arts program at N.C. State University, and led the program until stepping back to work on “Lookaway, Lookaway.” He name drops some of his colleagues in the novel, including another wonderful author, Jill McCorkle.
North Carolina, and the Triangle in particular (even outside the writer-fertile soil of Hillsborough), is rife with Southern authors. Barnhardt, whose work is indeed, as Regulator co-owner Tom Campbell put it, “marvelous,” shows the level to which writers writing about this South should aspire.

Wilton Barnhardt will read from “Lookaway, Lookaway” at 11 a.m. Sept. 7 at McIntyre’s Fine Books, 220 Market St. in Pittsboro.

“Lookaway, Lookaway” by Wilton Barnhardt (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99)