You haven’t lived until you’ve seen all six-feet-plus of Wilton Barnhardt read from his latest novel, Lookaway, Lookaway. Not long after taking the pulpit of Decatur Presbyterian Church–one of 18 stages at this year’s Decatur Book Festival–Barnhardt announced that it was “story time.” And a small crowd of festival attendees nestled in the pews–I among them–witnessed the transubstantiation of a bearded, distinguished writer into an 18-year-old southern debutante and her overbearing old money mother.
Barnhardt’s lilting falsetto elicited many laughs during the reading, as we in the audience gave in and fully accepted his portrayal of matriarch Jerene Jarvis Johnston (nice alliteration). Jerene silencing her daughter’s distress to cloak family shame. Jerene extorting another parent in the same manner that she might negotiate a catering contract. And Jerene, for the duration of one hushed declarative sentence, letting her guard down and conveying the anger she feels on behalf of her child. I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing in the moment after Barnhardt delivered that sentence.
Barnhardt, a creative writing professor at North Carolina State University, says he has encountered many Jerene Jarvis Johnstons in his time in academia. Faculty and staff rub elbows with North Carolina’s moneyed families at college fundraisers and alumni social events.
Lookaway, Lookaway is organized into eleven chapters, each narrated by a different member of the Johnston clan. Barnhardt says he based the character of Gaston, a writer steeped in booze and self-loathing, on a number of different legends and stories about James Dickey, esteemed poet and author of Deliverance. This ought to tell you that no southern archetype is sacred or off limits in the novel. A fact that will either delight or offend you.
I thought the book was delicious. I read and re-read certain passages and marveled at the characters. I read some reviews of Lookaway, Lookaway on Goodreads from people who said they hated the book and couldn’t make it past the first chapter. This is satire, folks. It ain’t pretty. Good satire is dark and over the top and funny at inappropriate moments. And Lookaway, Lookaway is one of the finest examples you’ll find today.
To find out where you can hear Wilton Barnhardt read from his latest novel, visit his website at wiltonbarnhardt.com.