The Johnston family of Charlotte, North Carolina, once steeped in Southern splendor and affluence, has been struggling with diminished funds and dwindling spirits in recent years. Their patriarch, Duke, has stopped working in favor of participating in Civil War reenactments. His formidable wife, Jerene Jarvis Johnston, prides herself on preserving their family’s storied (if a little well-worn) image; if only the rest of her family would cooperate.
The four Johnston children are each dealing with their own complicated issues. Oldest daughter Annie has been married three times, and it looks like she’s heading toward her third divorce. As a teen, she did everything she could to rebel against her conventional family and all they stood for. As she gets older, she turns her rebellion inward, as her weight balloons up to 250 pounds. Son Bo is a minister with waning faith, and his simple wife, Katie, finds renewed strength in her mission; it’s just not with Bo. Josh, the younger son, has trouble admitting to his family that he’s gay. He has an even harder time finding a decent boyfriend, as he is a magnet for losers who take advantage of him. Jerilyn, the baby of the family, has just begun college and longs to change up her image; she does so by joining the “slutty” sorority. It ends horribly (and predictably) with her being date-raped by a frat boy.
"...a wickedly sharp and satiric look at the new South and one desperate family’s obsession with their fading image."
To add insult to the family injury, there’s also Uncle Gaston, Jerene’s brother, a brusque, alcoholic writer of some renown in the Pat Conroy tradition, and Duke’s former best friend. They are no longer close because, to Gaston’s mind, Duke must look at him as a sell-out. Back in their college days, they had planned to write a novel of the South together entitled Lookaway, Dixieland. Despite their best intentions, they never did. Instead, Gaston pens a few literary novels with modest success and, later, a hugely successful series of bestselling historical novels featuring a female heroine that has made him rich: “And when the world looked at Gaston, everyone saw a success…except Duke. Duke looked at him and thought that they were partners in a failed promise.” Even with all his success, Gaston is bitter, resentful, angry, and sort of mean. He wields his literary fame like a sword and looks down on most everyone, usually because they’re constantly asking him for money. His “social currency was his money --- he would be pointless without it.”
Dillard is Gaston and Jerene’s divorced sister who lives alone. She lost her only son to a drug overdose, which her family feels is the result of a lifetime of indulgence by his mother. Gaston visits infrequently and then only to guiltily throw some money her way. The only one who sticks by Gaston is his long-suffering assistant/hopeful companion, Norma, who wishes that one day her faithful service will be rewarded with Gaston’s affections.
With all these complicated characters, secrets abound, and most are exposed over one explosive Christmas dinner that culminates with one of these characters wounding his or her spouse with an ancient Civil War pistol. Each person in the Johnston clan struggles with seemingly everyday tasks, but the one individual among them who is trying to keep them all together and in the style in which they’ve become accustomed is mom Jerene. She’ll stop at nothing to make sure her family’s honor, however false, is intact. After her daughter’s attack, instead of reporting it to the police, she discovers that the boy responsible for the assault is from a prominent local family and arranges a meeting with his parents. After detailing how awful a trial would be for everyone, Jerene sweetly and deftly extorts money to buy Jerilyn’s silence about the attack, not only ensuring her daughter’s reputation, but also refilling her family’s empty coffers.
Even with all her efforts, “now it hardly matters what [Jerene] and Duke’s children do; the world of proprieties and respectabilities, the patina of Southern grace and elegant public bearing, all of that was nearly gone and smashed to bits.” No one today seems to be concerned with the old stately graces. Jerene is second-guessing any of her children to take over her role as the head of the Jarvis Trust for American Art. What will be this troubled family’s legacy?
LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY is Wilton Barnhardt’s first novel in 15 years but well worth the wait. It’s a wickedly sharp and satiric look at the new South and one desperate family’s obsession with their fading image. Over the course of roughly a decade, the Johnston clan writhes with their own demons as their long-held secrets threaten to overtake them. Barnhardt’s steely focus is on this one family’s obsession to hang on to their fading image of glory, no matter how false. With one part Richard Russo, one part Pat Conroy, and a smidgen of Philip Roth, you have Barnhardt’s masterful new novel, a scathing satire that feels like a new classic.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on August 23, 2013