September 26, 2013
“Aren’t you writing about politics anymore?” a newspaper editor asked me the other day.
I stuttered because I have been writing more about books than politics lately.
The editor continued, “Are you a little gun-shy from that controversy about the column you wrote bringing Joseph Goebbels’s voice into North Carolina politics?”
Maybe he has a point. Counting today, I have written five consecutive columns about books. One of them, however, Brandt Ayers’s “In Love with Defeat,” was about politics in Alabama and North Carolina. The others Marissa Pessl’s “Night Film,” Jason Mott’s “The Returned,” Alan Gurganus’s “Local Souls,” and in today’s column, Wilton Barnhardt’s “Look Away, Look Away,” are fiction. So is Lee Smith’s “Guests on Earth,” which will be the subject of a forthcoming column.
All these books and authors are important, so important that every informed North Carolinian should know about them: Ayers because he puts 50 years of Southern politics and civil rights struggles in perspective; Gurganus and Smith, who are among our state’s most important and beloved authors, are giving their fans new books for the first time in years.
Meanwhile on Sunday, Pessl, Mott, and Barnhardt made the Top 25 on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction bestseller list, showing the country that North Carolina is still producing writers worthy of national attention.
So this will be another column about a book. Barnhardt’s “Lookaway, Lookaway,” a Dickens-like novel, follows the decline of a contemporary, socially prominent Charlotte family. Barnhardt takes his readers to country clubs, museums, mansions, college fraternity and sorority rush parties and aftermaths, debutante balls, retirement homes, real estate developments, gay pickup sites, homes for unwed mothers, abortion sites, Civil War reenactments, and, note this, political campaigns.
The family’s titular leader, Joseph B. (“Duke”) Johnston, has a connection to the Confederate general best known for his surrender to Sherman at the end of the Civil War. Duke Johnston gained his nickname as a football hero and student leader at Duke University. After college he became a Charlotte lawyer and Republican city councilman. He had prospects of being governor someday, until a minor sex scandal brought those dreams to an end in the mid 1980s.
The real leader of the family is Duke’s wife, Jerene Jarvis Johnston, whose every action is calculated to enhance or protect the family’s social position. Her family’s art collection, housed at Charlotte’s Mint Museum and displayed in the Jarvis Room, gives her leverage with the city’s social elite.
But the family is running out of money. Jerene’s brother is a wealthy author of a series of Civil War-era romances. Sometimes he shares his wealth with his sister’s family, but his assistance is usually undependable and is always demeaning.
Meanwhile, none of the four Johnston children show potential or interest in leading the family to social prominence and wealth again. The rebellious, liberal Annie runs through three marriages. Bo, who might have been a lawyer or businessman, is instead a troubled Presbyterian minister. Josh is a mostly closeted gay with a secret active sex life thanks to resources he finds on the Internet and the devoted help of his best friend and companion, a super smart African American lesbian. The youngest child, Jerilyn, shows early social promise until she shoots her way out of a marriage to a socially acceptable Charlotte boy.
Does Barnhardt accurately portray the social, civic, and political scene in Charlotte? I think he stretches things to make a good story. But when I challenged him, he promised he could produce facts to show the situations in the book are close to what Charlotte and North Carolina are really like.
One fact is indisputable. Barnhardt is a gifted storyteller and a welcome addition to North Carolina’s literary pantheon.