Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

While I liked everything about Wilton Barnhardt's novel Lookaway, Lookaway, I'm not really sure I liked Lookaway, Lookaway.

I'll try to explain.

Lookaway, Lookaway is a satirical study of a southern family trying to maintain a brave face and a graceful southern lifestyle long after the money has run out.  The money and any real need to maintain the pretense of graceful southern living.  It's a very funny book.

There is a matriarch, of course, Jerene Jarvis Johnston, the kind of woman who deals with life's disappointments by simply denying they ever existed, forcing reality to bend to her will and succeeding much of the time.  When her youngest daughter is sexually assaulted before the end of her first week at college, Jerene explains to her that should she decide to press charges her mother will stand by her throughout whatever hardship infamy, the media and the justice system can deal out.  Her support will be unwavering.  Or, her daughter can simply move forward, forget the past, and live the exact life she intended to without any muss or fuss.  Maybe a semester in Europe until things die down.  However, should she choose this course she must never, ever speak of what happened to her ever again, to anyone.

That her daughter chooses the latter course does not prevent Jerene from confronting the young man's father in order to exact a good solid five figure price for her daughter's silence.  One check made out to her daughter, one to the family's art trust and one to Jerene herself.  Each 10,000 dollar check too small of an amount to need declaring to the I.R.S.

This is how Jerene has long run her life, not by pretending it's something it's really not, but by insisting that it is exactly what she wants it to be.

She kind of reminds me of my grandmother.

Each chapter in Lookaway, Lookaway focuses on a different member of the extended Jarvis Johnston clan: Jerene's children, her husband, brother and sister, and a few in-laws and friends.  Each is trying to force the world the bend to their own vision of it to some degree, almost always with very limited success.

This wide cast of characters is one of the things I liked most about the book.  Each is completely, fully realized and each is more than worthy of an entire chapter, most are worthy of an entire book.  None of their stories are dropped once the narration moves on to another character, but each one gets a generous amount of time in the spotlight, center stage.  There is a wonderfully bitter rich uncle, an author once full of literary promise now on the seventh book in a series of Civil War romances about the brave southern belle Cordelia Florabloom.  Jerene's husband, amateur civil war historian, is the center of a marvelous re-enactment scene, and one of the best Thanksgiving family dinner scenes I've read since Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys with it's kosher Korean turkey dinner.

The satire in Lookaway, Lookaway is not for the feint of heart; while Mr. Barnhardt seems to love his cast of characters, he is not afraid of giving them their just desserts.  Over the course of the novel we can see that Jerene's iron will is not going to be enough to keep the family together.  Things are falling apart from chapter one and Jerene's desire to brush all bad things under the rug is exacting a toll on her family, even on herself.

There's a new age cliche about only being as sick as your secrets, but in Lookaway, Lookaway the secrets are all coming home to roost, much like they typically do in a Tennessee Williams play.  By the end, the entire house of cards will come crashing down forcing everyone to leave the old family home and move into condominiums.  Jerene will get what she deserves in and ending I can only describe as delicious.  I hate it when a satire fails in the end, when the author can't help but give someone an undeserved happy ending.  Mr. Bernhardt has the courage of his satirical convictions, I'm pleased to say.

So why can't I say that I liked the book?  Everything about it is wonderful.  Did I mention that Mr. Barnhardt is a darn good writer with an excellent turn of phrase.  His prose is some of the best I've read by a living author in a long time.

I guess, maybe, as a reader I just don't have the courage of my own satirical convictions.  I wanted someone to be worthy of a happy ending even though I know making one of the characters like that would not be true to the book.

Maybe I wanted to bend Mr. Bernhardt's narrative to my will like Jerene wants to bend the world to hers.

That probably makes me a little bit like my grandmother which does not make me like the book, by the way.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Yeah well it is Southern Way, this pretending there isn't a problem then stopping at nothing to make sure it goes away. Sounds like a few people I know. Myself? I don't want happy endings for people like this. I revel in watching them crash and burn!

JoAnn said...

I've heard of this book before and am totally intrigued. Will see if my library has a copy so I can take a closer look. Love the cover, too!

Lisa said...

I haven't come across either the author or the book before. I'm equally tempted by the bitter uncle and his Cordelia Florabloom character (OMG what a perfect name), and all the possibilities for satire (not to mention mayhem) in a Civil War re-enactment.

Jenny said...

I loved this review, partly because I've read several novels recently that had totally undeserved happy endings and it drove me wild. Follow your own conclusions, authors! But I just finished Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets -- very funny -- and the ending was all you could hope for. Recommended.

Agree with Lisa that Cordelia Florabloom is the best name ever for a brave Southern belle.

Bybee said...

OK, now I have to try this one. I was going to anyway, since I loved Emma Who Saved My Life, but your review gave me that final...puuuuuuuush.

SFP said...

Public library here in Charlotte has almost 200 copies of this and the waiting list has more than 100 people on it. I've resorted to putting my name on both that list and the one for a large print copy still on order and I'll take whichever comes in first.

I gotta read this!