Review: N.C. family’s laundry aired in novel by Raleigh-based writer

CorrespondentAugust 17, 2013 

  • Fiction Lookaway, Lookaway Wilton Barnhardt St. Martin’s Press, 368 pages

Meet the Johnstons.

A high-society, old-money Southern family, the Johnstons are something of a fading institution in Charlotte. Patriarch Duke Johnston, descendant of a Confederate general, was on track for North Carolina governor at one point, until his mysterious withdrawal from politics.

Duke’s wife, Jerene, curates the family’s smallish legacy of valuable paintings at Charlotte’s Mint Museum of Art. But her full-time work, really, is keeping up family appearances. It’s not easy. Finances are an issue, the homestead manor is in jeopardy, and the Johnston children are – well, “complicated” is probably the polite term.

Consider young Jerilyn, recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, prepped and poised for Southern society – until unfortunate incidents with her husband and a Civil War-era dueling pistol. Jerilyn’s rebellious sister Annie recently discovered that radical politics don’t pay as well as real estate. And little brother Joshua prefers black men. Except for his black girlfriend, who prefers white women.

It’s complicated, all right, and rooting around in the Johnston family laundry is one of the many joys of “Lookaway, Lookaway,” Wilton Barnhardt’s sprawling, generous, delightful new novel. Deeply (but gently) satirical, “Lookaway” has a knowing affection toward its characters that binds the multigenerational story together. The book is packed with weirdness specific to the South – Civil War re-enactments, debutante balls, queasy racial politics – but the barbs are delivered with a chuckle, not a cackle.

Another of the novel’s joys is its simple delight in language, its tumbling cascade of words. Barnhardt, Raleigh resident and instructor of writing at N.C. State, deploys language with wily enthusiasm, especially in the dialogue around the Johnston dinner table. Family get-togethers tend to devolve quickly into political arguments, and it’s a lively spectator sport for readers. Consider this breathless monologue from Annie, righteous leftie and self-appointed family contrarian:

“All of these States’ Rights arguments are mired in spoiled-brat logic. I, the majority sentiment in the state, get to do whatever I want which includes trampling on the rights of the less powerful. I get to pollute or take mountains apart, top to bottom, to get at the coal, destroying the environment downstream for all the poor mountainfolk. I get to keep black people from voting or deny poor people Medicare they’re owed or get to keep black schools inferior or get to criminalize gay people or order the state police apparatus to harass women getting putatively legal abortions in Kansas and Oklahoma, and if you object, if you say it isn’t just, I will wrap myself in a cloak of States’ Rights and say, ‘Even if we’re prejudiced and ignorant, we get to trample the minority any way we please and how DARE you try to impose federal justice from above – States’ Rights! States’ Rights! States’ Rights!’"

It’s a raucous enough screed, and could make a nice Moral Mondays reading these days. But it’s much more ambiguous (and funnier) when read in context of character and circumstance. In the Johnston family, this is simply Annie’s schtick – a well-rehearsed act she’s perfected over years of verbal sparring with her Old South parents.

“Lookaway” is in part about the slow-motion collision of Old and New South that’s been rumbling for a few decades now. But it’s mostly about family, always more entertaining and enraging than politics. Scandals erupt and old family secrets are revealed as the Johnston clan skids into the future.

Some revelations are painful indeed, and you come to care deeply for these characters – especially the tough old matriarch Jerene, trying desperately to preserve some semblance of dignity as family fortunes take a turn.

I noticed a curious phenomenon toward the end of “Lookaway, Lookaway.” I started reading more slowly, lingering over each passage, rationing out the last pages. I didn’t want it to end. “Lookaway” is both dishy and literary, but like all good novels, there’s a nourishing quality as well.

If you’re looking for one final summer read, consider spending some quality family time with the Johnstons. They’re a riot.

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