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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Lookaway, Lookaway: Satire of the South

Some novels, you can just tell the writer had an absolute ball writing them — and in many cases, those are the most fun books to read. That's definitely the case with vastly underrated novelist Wilton Barnhardt's satiric novel of a southern family, Lookaway, Lookaway.

Here's what you need to know to understand this family, courtesy of the drunken uncle Gaston: "Our families are a ragtag bunch held together by a glue of secrets, and I hate secrets now. Our family's secrets...a mountain of them....We've been tyrannized by these secrets."

Yes, the secrets in this upscale but downward-trending Charlotte family — the Johnstons — will be their undoing. With chapters told from the perspective of each member of the family — the secrets are slowly revealed, to the reader and to each member of the family, as they flit in and out of each others' stories.

But the real mark of this novel is how funny it is, and how much fun it is to read. The opening chapter of the novel follows youngest daughter Jerilyn to her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, as she pledges a sorority populated with ditzy, coke-snorting sisters named Taylorr and Brittanie. Things go south quickly for Jerilyn, as they do for pretty much every member of the family, including patriarch Duke Johnston.

Duke had been the big many on campus at, naturally, Duke — a promising political career, though, was railroaded (and it's a secret why - but we found out soon enough), and now he's settled into his autumn years, dedicating his life to Civil War reenactment. Indeed, supposedly, the Johnston clan is descended directly from Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston.

Duke's wife Jerene is the real star of this show, though — she's the only character who appears in every other characters' story, and she's such a great parody of the proper southern society woman. During a wedding, she points out all the hundreds of miniscule departures in decorum, and we just laugh and laugh that people (and I have no doubt people do!) take such things so seriously. Jerene is constantly pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure the family maintains its place in society. But she's also constantly warring with her brother — the drunk uncle Gaston, a millionaire novelist who has written a series of historical novels about a woman named Coredelia Florabloom, a damsel in distress who just can't find her lost Civil War soldier husband.

So, if you've spent any time in the South, or just want to laugh at some of the quirks of Southerners, this is the novel for you. Oh, and one final note — the ending of this novel is one of my favorite endings to any novel I've read in a long time. It's absolutely hysterical.

Highly, highly entertaining. Highly, highly recommended!