Monday, October 7, 2013

Lookaway, Lookaway

Most Southern family stories are set in small rural towns in the distant, if not the faraway, past.  Wilton Barnhardt's newest novel Lookaway, Lookaway is plopped down right in the middle of Charlotte, North Carolina, over the last decade, and the family Johnston and Jarvis families at the center of the story are far removed from tales of sharecroppers and hardscrabble living.  Instead, he shifts back and forth among the members of a family at the center of Charlotte society but at the end of their fortune.

The book opens as the younger daughter Jerilyn heads to UNC in Chapel Hill, determined against her mother's wishes to pledge a sorority--and not even her mother's staid sorority but the edgy Sigma Kappa Nu, referred to as Skanks, even by the members themselves.  If the first chapter or two reads like an episode out of the movie American Pie or Animal House, readers can expect it to zig and zag quickly.  Jerilyn's parents, Duke and Jerene Jarvis Johnston are living in a home in moneyed Charlotte, where he has a Civil War room holding his collection of guns and collectibles from the period.  He actively organizes and participates in a reenactment of a minor Skirmish just over the state line in South Carolina, and financial pressures move him to collaborate with developers who convince him they plan to preserve the field as a historical landmarks, keeping houses tastefully distant.  The agreement is closed with a gentleman's handshake, but these men are not gentlemen.

Barnhardt introduces every possible current controversy, particularly those hotbed topics in the South, with each new character.  While Jerene manages the family's trust at the Mint Museum of art, her brother Gaston Jarvis churns out a series of highly successful but hardly literary Civil War novels, failing to live up to his early promise, and never actually writing the novel he and his brother-in-law and college friend Bo Johnston dreamed up in Durham, Lookaway, Dixieland.  He spends his days in the bar at the country club to which he gained membership because of his Johnston family connections.

The Johnston's gay son Josh works in a men's clothing and searches the internet for potential  African American liaisons, usually under the watchful eye of his closest friend Dorrie, a black lesbian woman with an attraction to white society women. Meanwhile, his brother Bo pastors a prestigious Presbyterian church, aided by his wife Katie, who's just a bit too rough around the edges for her mother-in-law's tastes.  Rounding off the Johnston's siblings is the older daughter Annie, working through her third unsuccessful marriage as she builds a high profile real estate business in Charlotte.

The plot winds through the banking turmoil festering in Charlotte, the mortgage and housing decline, all with a balance between dark humor and tongue-in-cheek wit.  Barnhardt and his cast of characters manage to address race, gender, society, religious, financial scandal, literary rise and fall, university life, and politics.  At the heart, though, it is a family story.  With the huge ensemble cast, readers may find themselves reaching the final pages before deciding this is Jerene Jarvis Johnston's story most of all, particularly since she gets the literary last word.

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