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Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband Duke are exemplars of Charlotte, North Carolina's high society, where old Southern money―and older Southern secrets―meet the new wealth of bankers, boom-era speculators, and carpetbagging social climbers. Steely and implacable, Jerene presides over her family's legacy of paintings at the Mint Museum; Duke, the one-time college golden boy and descendant of a Confederate general, whose promising political career was mysteriously short-circuited, has settled into a comfortable semi-senescence as a Civil War re-enactor. Jerene's brother Gaston is an infamously dissolute bestselling historical novelist who has never managed to begin his long-dreamed-of literary masterpiece, while their sister Dillard is a prisoner of unfortunate life decisions that have made her a near-recluse.
As the four Johnston children wander perpetually toward scandal and mishap. Annie, the smart but matrimonially reckless real estate maven; Bo, a minister at war with his congregation; Joshua, prone to a series of gay misadventures, and Jerilyn, damaged but dutiful to her expected role as debutante and eventual society bride. Jerene must prove tireless in preserving the family's legacy, Duke's fragile honor, and what's left of the dwindling family fortune. She will stop at nothing to keep what she has―but is it too much to ask for one ounce of cooperation from her heedless family?
In Lookaway, Lookaway, Wilton Barnhardt has written a headlong, hilarious narrative of a family coming apart, a society changing beyond recognition, and an unforgettable woman striving to pull it all together.
- ISBN-13: 9781250020833
- ISBN-10: 1250020832
- Publisher: St. Martin's Press
- Publish Date: August 2013
- Page Count: 368
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-07-01
- Reviewer: Staff
North Carolina native Barnhardt’s frothy, satirical latest (after Show World) is Southern gothic at its most decadent and dysfunctional. With each chapter dedicated to a different character—one more self-indulgent and flawed than the last—the sprawling saga of an esteemed clan’s fall from grace and fortune spools out in fits and starts. Some members are more emotionally complex (and therefore more entertaining to read about) than others. The sections devoted to the four flailing Johnston kids—including spoiled college co-ed Jerilyn’s drivel about her sorority-pledging shenanigans (think wanton lewd behavior including a tired sex-with-a-sheep joke)—delve into too much repetitive, perhaps excessive, detail. But the adults pick up the slack, chiefly Gaston—a bestselling author of Civil War–themed potboilers, who has a potty mouth, gobs of cash, and a weakness for hard liquor and prostitutes, and his sister, Jerene, the unflappable matriarch and “distillation of rich-white-lady force who could eat her social inferiors for hors d’oeuvres.” (Her hilarious one-liners are standouts.) As the scandals pile up, including a raucous Christmas dinner showdown, and a hoot of a finale that’s pure shock and awe, this mess of a family has nowhere left to go but up—well, not if they can help it. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (Aug.)
Southern society and its many secrets
In his fourth book, Lookaway, Lookaway, novelist Wilton Barnhardt sticks with what he knows. A professor at North Carolina State University and native of the state, Barnhardt is well equipped to bring the manicured, yet scandalous, world of Southern high society to life. The result is an effervescent novel best described in terms of the characters that populate it.
The story hinges on the Johnston family’s unflinching, poised, perfectly mannered matriarch, Jerene. Her husband, Joseph “Duke” Johnston, is a non-practicing lawyer and onetime rising political star in Charlotte, who now devotes most of his brainpower to an obsession with an obscure Civil War battle. Jerene’s brother Gaston, the author of a popular series of commercial novels, pines after a decidedly more highbrow reputation. He feels like a sell-out, and loses himself in bourbon at the local country club.
The Johnston children are as much at sea as the adults. Annie, the eldest, continually tries to subvert the notion of a good old-fashioned debutante. Bo, a preacher, feels out of place both on the pulpit and in his complicated marriage. The third, Joshua, is disenfranchised within his family by his homosexuality, which goes unacknowledged even after the most unceremonious of coming-outs. The baby, Jerilyn, begins as the natural heir to her mother’s legacy, but is shoved off course by a trauma that is, true to Johnston form, quickly swept under the rug.
As family members attempt to reconcile an antebellum past with their messy present, they grapple with evolving notions of legacy, race, class and personal identity. Their storylines circle one another, held in the same orbit by the unrelenting centripetal force that is Jerene. She manages the public relations for her family, rarely letting her humanity show even in the most raw and devastating scenarios. As the task of keeping the historic family name in good standing becomes too daunting even for her, the novel boils to its explosive conclusion.