Charlotte, hows your sense of humor these days?
Raleighs Wilton Barnhardt hopes its in decent working order. Because his new novel, a sprawling, comic family saga called Lookaway, Lookaway, happens to be set in Charlotte with cameos by Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Greensboro and other North Carolina locales.
It also happens to lampoon the New and Old South, taking on debutantes, country clubs, religion, race, class, private schools even the town of Tega Cay, which sounds like an exotic island, but is in fact situated on an inland catfish-and-red-clay riverway dammed by a concrete embankment just across the state line in South Carolina.
The novel, out Aug. 20, looks to be big. St. Martins Press first printing is 150,000. And Kirkus Reviews has declared it the Southern novel for the 21st century. It is witty, savage and bighearted all at once, Kirkus says.
But how will it play across the Old North State? Itll be a conversation starter, thats for sure.
In fact, much of the books subject matter could apply to any number of Southern cities. Barnhardt hopes readers keep that in mind.
But he chose Charlotte for a reason. As a great up-and-coming New South city, Charlotte really has the aspect of boomtown I was looking for, Barnhardt says.
The story centers on steel-willed Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband, Duke Johnston, who live in a mansion that sits regally on a hill near the entrance to Myers Park, a century-old neighborhood considered one of Charlottes finest addresses.
Duke, descendant of a Civil War general, never achieved his early promise as a lawyer or politician. But he loves Civil War history and proudly owns land near Tega Cay where Confederate and Union soldiers once skirmished over control of a train trestle.
Jerenes claim to fame, meanwhile, is a family art collection. It occupies its own room in the Mint Museum on Randolph Road, a museum organized not by period or school, but by rich benefactors hoardings.
Their family includes a gay son whos attracted to black men, a minister son who leads a dysfunctional Presbyterian congregation, and a liberal, contemptuous older daughter who goads her family: If were so full of brotherly feeling, why arent there any black people in our gated community of a church?
Then theres the youngest, Jerilyn, who after a lifetime of rule-following decides to rebel by joining the biggest drug-and-party sorority on UNC-Chapel Hills campus.
(Barnhardt comes from a long line of N.C. State supporters. In the books first chapter, he details a UNC Greek rush that includes hazing, anorexia and drugs. He jokes that its my love letter to Carolina.)
Key characters also include Gaston Jarvis, Jerenes brother and Dukes best college buddy, a hard-drinking author who once aspired to write a great American novel. Instead, he made his fortune with Civil War potboilers (This Chivalrous Hour, March into a Southern Dawn) featuring Cordelia Florabloom, a Confederate heroine given to slipping through enemy lines to help Rebels as she searches for her betrothed.
Gastons readers are mostly elderly white people, plus an occasional fan who shows up at Gastons bookstore reading wearing a Civil War uniform. So Gaston drinks, and periodically considers killing off Cordelia, or at least writing a story in which she services General Sherman.
But who is Wilton Barnhardt, and, the bigger question, how does he know about Charlotte?
He grew up in Winston-Salem, the son of a cigarette company chemist and schoolteacher, but got an inside glimpse of Charlotte as a boy when he visited a beloved aunt, the late Anna Hendrix, a teacher and woman of great refined habits who lived on Lexington Avenue in Dilworth, just west of Myers Park.
My aunt seemed to me to have a foot in the door of society, he says. She knew every scrap of gossip about Charlotte.
His aunt, he says, is now rotating in her grave that Ive even vulgarly mentioned her in an interview.
Barnhardt lived outside North Carolina for more than 20 years, graduating from Michigan State, then heading to New York, where he parlayed a job as an administrative assistant at Sports Illustrated into a gig as a reporter covering NASCAR.
Barnhardt, a big guy at 6-foot-1 and 325 pounds, rates that accomplishment as the most unlikely of his life, given that hes the most unathletic human on earth and knows nothing about sports, apart from NASCAR.
In 1989, he published his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life, a coming-of-age comedy set in New York City that the Los Angeles Times called immensely winning. The book wasnt a best-seller, but it gave Barnhardt a following. It was a touchstone book for a lot of people, St. Martins Press Editor-in-Chief George Witte says.
Two more novels (Gospel and Show World) and several college teaching jobs followed before he returned to native soil, landing at N.C. State in 2002 to teach creative writing and direct its MFA program.
Barnhardt, 53, is known among friends for his love of travel, good restaurants and fine wine. He is just beloved by everyone, says author Jill McCorkle, a colleague at N.C. State.
Until now, Barnhardt has never written about his home state. That was by design. He wanted to be more national in subject matter, he says, though he had long planned one Southern novel.
What he didnt want to write was a cartoonish Southern story where everybodys got a hand on the hip and is saying hilarious things in arch grammar, he says. And the races are all friendly and if only these brutal men arent around what a paradise the South would be. I dont think thats the real South.
Truth in satire
For the real South, Barnhardt begins his story in 2003. The Johnston family fortune has dwindled to a dangerously low level, mostly because Duke hasnt brought in income for years.
Jerene, however, is adamant the Johnstons will retain their place in Charlotte society, and that her familys legacy, the paintings that comprise the Mints Jarvis Trust for American Art, will never be sold.
So when a fraternity member takes indecent liberties with her daughter during UNCs sorority rush, Jerene makes the best of the situation, driving in her Mercedes to Durham to extort money from the perpetrators father. She is so efficient that she returns in time for her annual fundraiser at the Mint.
Many Charlotte institutions show up in these pages, and while some names are changed, its easy to imagine the model for Mecklenburg Country Day or Charlottetowne Country Club, the citys most exclusive, discriminating judgmental, double- and triple-screened enclave.
For 368 pages, the Johnstons confront scandal and unraveling secrets. Fortunes are lost. Guns are fired. There is much hilarity.
But there is also something poignantly real about Barnhardts characters. As rollicking a good time as it is, McCorkle says, theres a whole lot of truth buried within.
We even end up cheering for Jerene, who carries on like a 21st-century Scarlett OHara. Nothing defeats her. Not even fresh blood on the $300 blouse she bought at Nordstrom.
Some people in Charlotte may not care for this book. A lot of readers are going to love it.
Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271