Wilton Barnhardt’s ‘Lookaway, Lookaway’
by St. Martin's Press
St. Martin's Press, $25.99 hardback, 368 pp.
I never took one of Wilton Barnhardt’s classes during my undergraduate years at North Carolina State University. I’m fairly certain I never once saw Barnhardt during these four years. I studied in the electrical engineering department, and my exposure to creative writing during the mid-2000s came from chatting with fellow editors of the school newspaper, most whom would rather spend a day in the animal husbandry building than a few minutes in an engineering building, and serving as a “yes man” to my girlfriend at the time when she edited the school’s literary magazine our senior year. She went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop afterward, and I went down the road to law school in Chapel Hill. She no longer writes, and I find myself writing more this year than I have in my previous twenty-seven years combined. “Work for a few years before you see which of the young men you met at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement. Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab,” says one of Barnhardt’s characters. I’ve yet to decide whether I should feel proud to live only slightly outside the typecast or disheartened it holds some truth.
This feeling never left me for the 368 pages of Barnhardt’s latest novel and his first book set in the South, Lookaway, Lookaway. I never saw the big man on campus in Raleigh, but his immense presence (in personality, reputation, and size) pierced even the solder vapors of the dark, underground engineering labs. To endeavor a narrative of the modern aristocratic South by infiltrating, among other keep-quiet structures, the Greek houses of Carolina and the debutante society of bank money Charlotte, perhaps takes such a commanding person. Not only would the stereotypes required in the story not please those fitting them (and these folks often wield great social, capital, and political power), but another writer already attempted to tell the tale, or so I thought before I opened Lookaway.
The fall semester of my sophomore year at State winded down as Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons hit the tables at Quail Ridge Books & Music in December of 2004. I had never experienced a pre-release hype of a book quite like that of Wolfe’s pseudo-new journalism narrative of college culture in the aughts. (“Why does a writer whose ambitions are so fundamentally journalistic insist on processing his reportage into fiction?” Jacob Weisberg wrote in The New York Times.) Perhaps I felt the buildup because the novel takes place a mere twenty-five miles from where I lived at the fictional Dupont University (Duke, where Wolfe embedded himself), chronicles the provocative lives of kids my age at the time, and tells the story through a naïve student away from anything resembling home. I tore through Wolfe’s lengthy book in a few days, and I enjoyed jumping into the lives of my more salacious peers without worrying about losing my scholarship or getting an S.T.D. The book left me feeling unclean, nonetheless.
I had mistaken what Barnhardt hoped to accomplish before I read Lookaway, and it resembles nothing like Wolfe’s precursor to ABC Family’s “Greek.” Wolfe used a college setting to carry his story; Barnhardt uses a university environment to teach his readers about the stagnant state of class division in the South. Mary Jean Krisp, a sorority president at Carolina says,
What does it mean to be Greek? I’ll tell you what it means. It means we give a little more, work a little harder, and do a little more than our friends who favor a non-Greek lifestyle…. But the real point of our being here is to raise ourselves to a higher plane. We are in a position, since we are banded together, to really really help some underprivileged people in the state—to make a difference…. I think of a little girl, a little black girl, named Tasha and…I’m sorry, I just get a little emotional when I see how girls have literally nothing in life.
I’d have to be a fool at this point not to realize Barnhardt intends to reveal the story of how the Johnstons, a not-so-old money family from the Myers Park neighborhood in Charlotte, come to have “nothing in life.” Though I know where the family will end up, despite their efforts to hide what they label as scandals (money problems, an abortion, date rape, tough marriages, homosexuality), I can’t Lookaway.
I turn the pages, in large part, because Barnhardt moves his narrative through the perspective of a different character for each chapter. The reader begins with the daughter, Jerilyn Johnston, and her experience I referenced earlier of navigating the Greek scene at Carolina. Barnhardt then paints North Carolina with the brushes of Gaston Jarvis, Jerilyn’s uncle and brother of her mother, Jerene. Gaston, a self-described “creature of the old manners, the old courtesies,” made a fortune from “slave-time romances” of the Civil War. He used to hang with the likes of Styron and Baldwin at the 92nd Street Y before his ventures into the War Between the States, but he now spends his days sipping from a flask and wondering, “What would Baldwin, if he were alive, say about him now?”
Gaston’s sister, Jerene, certainly has words for him and for everyone else in the tale. The matriarch of the Johnston family whose commanding presence seeps into controlling Barndhardt’s novel, Jerene has her vein-backed hands on everything from managing the Jarvis Trust for American Art to covering up her family’s misdeeds, one of which includes her daughter Jerilyn finding herself raped on a date. Notice my phrasing. Jerene counsels her daughter after driving to Chapel Hill:
The worst thing in life is feeling like you have no control over things. I try to avoid those situations at all costs. It’s like my committee work.
Darling, in the future, you may not invite to a bed any young man about whom you do not know his father’s profession, his eventual means, his status in the world. That is a one-way ticket to the mobile-home park. These are most important details.
Barnhardt might have gone a bit overboard with the “committee work” line, but the similarity between Jerene’s comforting words to her daughter after a rape and Lady Grantham’s dating advice to Edith on Downton Abbey remains no mistake. These thoughts stay unspoken today in the mansions of Myers Park and the “Folk Victorians” of St. Mary’s Street in Raleigh, but the preferred “ideal” continues to marinate everything around the houses outside actual words—from the subhuman Latino yard workers to the Whole Foods paper bags in the recycling bin by the curb. Barnardt makes his point that not much has changed from pre-War Yorkshire to the New South when it comes to ensuring family purity.
Gaston might disagree in word but perhaps not in spirit. “What’s interesting about the New South?” he asks his brother-in-law, Duke Johnston, who suggests Gaston should write a contemporary book. “Nothing,” Gaston answers. “[I]t needs the grandeur of the earlier era.” The earlier era never left, grandeur or not. Duke and Gaston later talk about potential book characters:
“They must not simply rise and fall,” Duke had said. “They have to embody the central conundrum of the South.”
“You mean, race?”
“There’s something fatal from what the slave trade fostered, a kind of barbarism side by side with the civility."
Barnhardt could have used this juxtaposition of seemingly opposing characteristics as a subtitle or epigraph to his satire of the South, which rests perhaps closer to the edge between ridicule and truth than any other contemporary novel of the region’s social insensibilities. The it’s-so-depressing-it’s-funny class structure and the resultant socioeconomic injustice of the South, particularly this area of North Carolina, will still exist when my children experience the region. I would commit heresy if I didn’t throw them Faulkner’s works and his tired line that I’m almost embarrassed to repeat here: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” But when they want a peak into the real cruelty behind the manners of their neighbors in the cul-de-sac, perhaps I’ll hand them Barnhardt’s novel.