In his fourth book, Lookaway, Lookaway, novelist Wilton Barnhardt sticks with what he knows. A professor at North Carolina State University and native of the state, Barnhardt is well equipped to bring the manicured, yet scandalous, world of Southern high society to life. The result is an effervescent novel best described in terms of the characters that populate it.
The story hinges on the Johnston family’s unflinching, poised, perfectly mannered matriarch, Jerene. Her husband, Joseph “Duke” Johnston, is a non-practicing lawyer and onetime rising political star in Charlotte, who now devotes most of his brainpower to an obsession with an obscure Civil War battle. Jerene’s brother Gaston, the author of a popular series of commercial novels, pines after a decidedly more highbrow reputation. He feels like a sell-out, and loses himself in bourbon at the local country club.
The Johnston children are as much at sea as the adults. Annie, the eldest, continually tries to subvert the notion of a good old-fashioned debutante. Bo, a preacher, feels out of place both on the pulpit and in his complicated marriage. The third, Joshua, is disenfranchised within his family by his homosexuality, which goes unacknowledged even after the most unceremonious of coming-outs. The baby, Jerilyn, begins as the natural heir to her mother’s legacy, but is shoved off course by a trauma that is, true to Johnston form, quickly swept under the rug.
As family members attempt to reconcile an antebellum past with their messy present, they grapple with evolving notions of legacy, race, class and personal identity. Their storylines circle one another, held in the same orbit by the unrelenting centripetal force that is Jerene. She manages the public relations for her family, rarely letting her humanity show even in the most raw and devastating scenarios. As the task of keeping the historic family name in good standing becomes too daunting even for her, the novel boils to its explosive conclusion.