Often too bitter to be funny, Wilton Barnhardt’s “Lookaway, Lookaway,” a novel about today’s South, nevertheless showcases Barnhardt’s considerable talent for satire. While Barnhardt’s satirical bite is vicious, he does offer the reader occasional respite from his snarl. From the perspectives of one character at a time, Barnhardt gradually unfolds the sagas of the Johnston and Jarvis families, fictional representations of socially prominent North Carolinians, until not one skeleton is left in their respective closets. But in the process, he arouses the reader’s compassion for his morally bankrupt victims, as he reveals the cruel buffetings of the lives that have shaped them.
The novel is well researched, rich with interesting historical tidbits that are not commonly known about the history of the American South in general, the Civil War in particular, and even more specifically, about the history of North Carolina and its role in that war. While Barnhardt is in no way easy on the South when it comes to its ignominious slave-holding past and its shameful treatment of its black population in the years following, he does call attention to some facts that give us a more rounded view of this often written about subject. For instance, the history of Louisiana in the 1700’s reveals a lenient attitude toward racial mixing and intermarriage due to the French and Spanish influences. Certainly that was eclipsed by later southern and national history of race relations, but the mixed ethnic origins of most American people of color was certainly impacted by that early more tolerant mindset. To quote Barnhardt, “There’s a black historian who says all the miscegenation in the South is not, as you might expect, solely due to masters raping slaves; only eight percent of whites in the South owned slaves.”
The fact that such a small part of the population were slave owners puts a different perspective on our romantic notions of a South inhabited by only plantation owners, slaves, and stereotypical “white trash” poor people who were slovenly, lazy, ignorant and devoid of any morals. Most of the southern population were probably middle-class storekeepers and artisans, or owners of small subsistence farms. A different picture emerges of the mainstream southerners after the Civil War, however. Especially in the early twentieth century, particularly the twenties and thirties, Barnhardt cites incident after incident of ugly racial hysteria resulting in lynchings and other horror stories that are hard to read, mostly in the South, but some in the nation at large. Nevertheless, he also includes historical details that give us small glimmerings of hope that before, during and after the war people have sometimes put their humanity and their common interests ahead of racial or ethnic boundaries.
Much is repelling about this book. Barnhardt does not fail to unearth everything sordid about life in the twenty-first century. Staying true to the artistic dictum of the past half-century that good writing and drama must top everything that has come before in shock value, the first chapter bludgeons the reader immediately with the most degrading posssible portrayal of college life during Greek week at Chapel Hill. The graphic imagery of the naked, humiliating hazing rituals which are then photographed and sold to porn sites to raise money for the fraternities and sororities, the disgusting and dangerous alcohol concoctions and excessive consumption, the rapes and the social pressure to abuse drugs make us indeed want to “lookaway, lookaway.” But as much as the reader wants to protest that the hellish images are exaggerated, Barnhardt’s picture of what really constitutes college life today rips at our denial.
So does his portrayal of the dark side of homosexual lifestyle and websites, but the exploitative, dehumanizing hook-ups of heterosexuals in the book are just as sad. I fault Barnhardt for the salacious descriptions that might trigger erotic reactions in some readers; he thus becomes one more source of advertising for “junk sex” rather than healthier, more ultimately satisfying relationships. He also slavishly conforms to the obligatory “f” word peppered throughout the novel, but at least he offsets that with an impressive vocabulary and an expert use of it. I always enjoy reading a book that requires me to have a dictionary by my side.