"Lookaway, Lookaway," by Wilton Barnhardt. St. Martin's Press. 361 pages. $25.99
As seen through the eyes of different members of one Charlotte family, this novel casts a jaundiced eye on today's South. There are echoes of the past -- even after 150 years, these Southerners have trouble forgetting the Civil War -- but it's largely concerned with today's world.
Our first narrator is Jerilyn Johnston, whose father is a direct descendant of Civil War hero General Joseph E. Johnston. She is packing for her first year at UNC Chapel Hill with six suitcases and a trunk plus a pink panda her boyfriend has given her. Her goal is to pledge a sorority and find a husband. She finds one, and shortly thereafter shoots him with an old Confederate pistol.
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Next we meet her alcoholic uncle, Gaston Jarvis, who makes a tremendous amount of money writing trashy novels about the Civil War. His protagonist is Cordelia Florabloom, and while he has always wanted to write an honest book about the South (this one, presumably) his readers keep demanding more Cordelia.
Next comes Jerene, Jerilyn's mother, who represents the cream of Charlotte society, but is hiding many secrets that could destroy her if they became known. They do. She also knows what other family members do not -- their money is almost gone.
Another daughter, Annie, who has acquired three husbands and a lot of weight, rejects every belief her mother holds dear. She chooses a Christmas dinner to expresses her feelings about saying grace, "I don't have to believe in some petulant deity in the clouds who needs to be sucked up to before every meal."
Then we hear from son Bo, a Presbyterian minister, who is beginning to doubt his faith, even as his childless wife, Kate, wants to go out and spread the word among the heathens. Jeanette, Jerene's mother, was dying of cancer when they put her in an expensive retirement home. Five years later, she is still going strong, and they can no longer afford to keep her there, but she is prepared to reveal family secrets to get what she wants.
Another son, Joshua, describes the not-so-hidden life of a homosexual with a fondness for black men, while his black friend Dorrie tells what life is like for a black lesbian who likes white women. Aunt Dillard, another leader in Charlotte society, lives alone nursing memories of her only son, Christopher, who died from a drug overdose.
Finally, we get the whole sordid story of the Johnston family through their patriarch, Joseph Beauregard Johnston, known as Duke. A former football star and rising politician, he squandered the family fortune even as a scandal ended his political career. He is the one who tells what he considers the truth about the South. "Everybody down South got rich doing something they shouldn't have," he says. "I can name you the first families of the Carolinas who got rich on smuggling or selling to the British in the Revolutionary War -- or the Yankees, mind you. Many of the cream of Southern society now were carpetbagging Northerners then, who came down here and bought mills and factories and deeds of land for a song from busted aristocrats whose money was tied up in Confederate scrip and were rendered penniless, and these families sit on their fortunes quite happily."
In a later chapter, one character muses about the fact that there was "so much brutality and wickedness in this place of church and good intention, a place of immense friendliness and charity and fondness for the rituals of family and socializing ... how could one place contain the other place?"
These critiques are stated by different characters, but one suspects they represent the author's views. Barnhardt, who has written three previous novels, was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., and teaches creative writing at N.C. State. He writes well, and clearly enjoys his savage look at the morals and mores of the South, but he often goes too far. Some of the story is unpleasant reading, and one longs for a character you can care about. I've lived in the South, off and on, for more than 30 years, and while the novel is often funny and on target, it far from the whole story.