Meet the Johnstons. They are the modern Southern family at the heart and center of “Lookaway, Lookaway,” Wilton Barnhardt’s hilarious yet penetrating new novel.
Each chapter is structured around a member of the Johnston clan. The story opens as Jerilyn Johnston upsets her mother Jerene Jarvis Johnston by pledging Sigma Kappa Nu, a University of North Carolina sorority:
The Sigma Kappa girls had morals that would shame a Babylonian in my day, and I suspect little has changed there. Their mothers were wild as hyenas, too.
College brings Jerilyn many steps closer to making the kind of headlines ("SOCIETY NEWLYWED SHOOTS HUSBAND WITH 1854 PISTOL") that no well-bred family wants to read. This is a family in crisis.
Jerene and her husband Duke preside over Charlotte, North Carolina society. It’s a milieu where old Southern families – and money -- collide with newly rich bankers and real estate developers. Jerene watches over her family’s collection of American art in the Mint Museum, while Duke – one-time golden boy, lawyer, and descendant of a Confederate general -- devotes himself to staging Civil War reenactments. There is a landmine of secrets holding this marriage together.
Their other children, Annie, an overweight much-married real estate speculator; Bo, a minister who is losing his faith; and gay Joshua whose most stable relationship is with his African-American lesbian friend Dorrie, repeatedly push the family into the promise of even more scandal. Jerene is a steely matriarch who fights to protect her family – and their diminished fortune – even as the values she has long cherished become increasingly irrelevant in the changing society of the New South.
Jerene’s brother Gaston Jarvis is the wealthy, alcoholic author of a best-selling series of Civil War historical novels, having abandoned his early literary promise. In fact, he and Duke had bonded during their time at UNC, over a “shared endurance of fathers” who drank and abused . They planned a novel called “Lookaway, Dixieland” or “Lookaway, Lookaway;”
Gaston knew it had to be about a Southern family. They would start from nothing, rise to great heights, then lose it all. . . the essential Irish-inherited doomedness of the South. . . .
Duke egged them both on. “Yet through it all such a sense of . . . of honor and family survival, all of it so precarious.”
“One scandal could ruin a family’s name.”
This is that book, with a title taken from "Dixie," which sings of “Old times there are not forgotten.” Old times in the Johnston family are buried, but not entirely forgotten, as long-guarded secrets that family members have repeatedly looked away from are eventually revealed. Behind the facade of the colonnaded, magnolia shaded porch of the Johnston family home is a family that is in the throes of disintegration. When secrets leak out at a boozy Christmas dinner, Jerene’s reclusive sister Dillard asks:
“Does anyone,” . . . “truly understand the concept of ‘none of your business’ in this family? Hm? These are all private matters, and it used to be considered terrible manners to talk politics or mention body parts at a dinner table. Civilized people down South were trained not to do it!”
. . . Bo sighed: it was now officially worse than last year’s Christmas dinner.
It’s not all bad news. The family gathers to celebrate Duke’s birthday:
Downstairs were eight people, eight wonderful dear people, who were anxious that he should return because they loved him. Love that was not the least bit called for or deserved. To be loved for no good reason – well, he supposed, that was what love really was, but still, how remarkable to be on the receiving end of such bounty, such largesse.
Towards the end of the book, Jerene apologizes to Dorrie by saying: “Sorry you had to be part of such a gothic drama.” For readers, no such apology is necessary. With “Lookaway, Lookaway,” Wilton Barnhardt has written the quintessential 21st-century Southern novel – an unflinchingly honest ride through a New South that is not so very different from the Dixieland of yore.
“Lookaway, Lookaway” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.