The New South Exposed with a Scapel

Article by ben

Wilton Barnhardt’s LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY is a “Southern novel”—it’s set in Charlotte and takes on questions of what exactly the term “New South” means—but it has more in common with the rollicking, maximalist humor of John Kennedy Toole than with the existential sobriety of Walker Percy. Yet anyone expecting something frivolous should prepare him/herself for the depth of this book; Barnhardt uses humor as a scalpel, opening the skin of his characters and finding what lurks beneath.

His subject is the Johnston family of North Carolina and its various tormented members. They are wealthy denizens of the South—real estate brokers, ministers, college students, famous novelists—struggling to understand and face the problems of a world changing beyond their imagination. Each of these family members has his/her own problem, but when mixed together, those problems become volcanic. Barnhardt describes this world and its transgressions with the sheen and detail of a photograph glimpsed in a glossy magazine.

Barnhardt’s characters often behave badly, yes, but as an author, he delights in pushing characters beyond their indiscretions into torments so banal they almost seem life-threatening. Take, for instance, the novel’s earliest passages, in which college freshman Jerilyn snorts cocaine for the first time. Many writers would focus on the feeling of the drug itself, but Barnhardt pushes the situation toward absurdity: while navigating the physiological effects of the drug, Jerilyn suddenly finds herself on the phone with her mother, creating a whole different kind of tension. It’s a small moment that suggests Barnhardt’s method of piling trouble after trouble upon the shoulders of his characters in a way that moves beyond specific economic or geographical circumstances—in a way that reflects how we all often feel.

In this sense, what’s the point in calling LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY a Southern novel? Yes, it takes place in the South, but to imply its appeal is merely geographical does Barnhardt a disservice. If anything, I tasted as many notes of THE CORRECTIONS and THE MARRIAGE PLOT as of the opulent Southern novels of the past. Of course, the world of Franzen and Eugenides is much removed from Barnhardt’s, but these are novels united by one important notion: that the characters’ deepest displeasures cause us, the readers, our most transcendent pleasures. It would almost seem cruel if Barnhardt didn’t force us to know and identify with his characters so completely—to show us how much like ourselves the Johnstons are, regardless of any geographical differences. This, finally, is the wonderful paradox of LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY: the more we see ourselves, the harder we laugh.

Lookaway, Lookaway: A Novel By Wilton Barnhardt Cover Image
ISBN: 9781250022288
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Picador - June 24th, 2014

Wilton Barnhardt signs LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY on Tuesday, July 15 at 7PM

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