Read away, read away!

New novel is riotous, revealing look at today’s South

Well, lookee here, lookee here …

If you’ve ever wished for the book to come along, the one that near perfectly depicts and explains life here in the South — the complex, Modern South, that is — your prayers have been answered. In “Lookaway, Lookaway,” prodigal North Carolina son Wilton Barnhardt lets loose the fictional Johnstons of Charlotte in the early 21st century, and the result is a hilarious, heartfelt family saga that almost chases away the ghosts of the region’s highly romanticized past.

Almost.

“I said if I’m going to write about the South, it’s not going to be some gently nostalgic front porch South I don’t recognize,” said Barnhardt, a Winston-Salem native who lived in New York, England and California and now runs the MFA in Creative Writing program at North Carolina State University. “But if you’re really being accurate about it, the old South is always sitting there, quietly lurking in the shadows.”

Or not so quietly. Paging Gaston Jarvis, the drunken, flamboyant trapped-in-his-own-success creator of the Cordelia Florabloom series of Civil War novels who’s one of “Lookaway’s” more memorable characters. On the flip side: His sister, Jerene Jarvis Johnston, is the family matriarch whose buttoned-up persona is gradually revealed to have a richly complicated inner lining.

“Lookaway, Lookaway’s” unique structure devotes one chapter apiece to 11 main characters as the storyline keeps chugging along from 2003 to 2012. Readers may keep deciding this latest person to get the full treatment is their favorite; that’s a “problem” the author, who’ll appear at this weekend’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival, welcomes:

Barnhardt on sketching so many indelible characters: “I knew I wanted to write about race, class, money, new money, old families, God, politics … So to some extent, I was drawing all my characters to get me around to all the topics.”

On the book’s structure: “It just about killed me! No one gets to appear twice, but everyone has to wander through each other’s chapters and know what happened in other rooms with other people. I smoothed it over eventually, but it was 11 short stories at first.”

On writing a novel without a central protagonist. Or did he? “I suppose Jerene is the protagonist. I always thought of her as the person with the greatest gravity, and everyone revolves around her or is repelled by her.”

On how that officially makes him a Southern writer: “There’s no point in writing a Southern book if you can’t get a Southern heroine up there along with other writers. I don’t think Blanche DuBois is looking over her shoulder. (Laughs) But at least I tried to get a Southern matriarch up there.”

On that other Southern writer, bad boy Gaston: “I think the most diplomatic answer is he’s a projection of myself if things had gone very wrong. But there’s still time! Let’s see how this book does … .”

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