Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wilton Barnhardt,_ Lookaway, Lookaway_

IF YOU, LIKE me, have a standing policy against reading novels that have embossed slip covers, you would likely pass this one up--or, you might look at the cover and think, "Having successfully dodged Fried Green Tomatoes, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and The Help, why in hell would I pick this up?"

Well, let me tell you.

The first chapter is about entering college student Jerilyn Johnston and her first week at Chapel Hill in 2003. Earnhardt uncannily evokes the sorority rush world of 2003 from the point of view of an aspirant--this chapter is everything I Am Charlotte Simmons should have been and was not.

I was ready to settle in for a whole novel of Jerilyn, but the second chapter is written from the point of view of her uncle Gaston, a formerly ambitious novelist who has become the author of a series of disposable but wildly commercial historical novels set in the Civil War era. Gaston has made pots of money, a good part of which he is drinking away. He is witty, bitter, conflicted, occasionally self-loathing, and a great example of a character you would never want to meet but is tremendous fun to read about.

I was ready to settle in with Gaston, too, but the next chapter whisks us to the point of view of Jerene Johnston, Jerilyn's mother, a flower of Southern womanhood with a resolve of steel, who must deploy her psycho-social resources--and they are formidable--to get Jerilyn through a potentially very damaging scrape. Women like Jerene are fatally easy to satirize, and Barnhardt mixes in a bit of that, but he also gets us to see that Jerene Johnston is smart, possesses a real dignity, and can do what needs to be done.  You gotta love her.

And so it goes--each new chapter gives us the point of view of another member of the family and its extensions, and each one turns out to be flawed but fascinating, persuasively imagined, possessed of a distinctive voice. And yet with all this non-stop p.o.v.-hopping, Barnhardt also maintains a clear and richly-developed through-line of plot.

It's a tour de force. So don't let that embossing fool you. You can't judge...well, you know.

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