Look Away, Look Away! (St. Martin's Press, 2013), by Wilton Barnhardt) offers perhaps the most comical and painful account of a nightmarish Christmas dinner ever in American fiction. A family undergoes a general breakdown and chaos erupts. And if Barnhardt's account of sorority and fraternity life at UNC Chapel Hill in the early 2000s is remotely true, the NC governor ought to call out the state National Guard to subdue the depravity.
This novel about the decline of a Charlotte, NC family in the early 2000s, prior to the Great Recession, includes a vacuous college girl whose goal is to go to college and find a husband; her sister, of many appetites, especially gustatory and sexual, who against all expectations makes a killing in real estate; her brother, who hides his gayness from his parents by bringing his African American lesbian partner to family gatherings as proof of his heterosexuality; his oldest brother, a Presbyterian minister; their parents, a conniving and ruthless mother who resorts to every imaginable stratagem to maintain her place in the upper-crust social structure of the Charlotte community; her husband, a lawyer whose prospects as a political candidate inexplicably tanked some years before, and who spends his time puttering with his civil war relics; and his brother in law, a successful writer with real talent who squandered a promising career by turning to the writing of potboilers to make money, and who’s bitter that critics no longer show him respect, and so on.
This satiric novel traces the decline of the genteel Old South through the misfortunes of this self-absorbed family. Barnhardt is never sure of his own attitudes towards his characters. Early in the novel he treats them with merciless scorn, but as the narrative progresses his attitude softens, as if he feels sorry for them. His targets are too easy and obvious—the vapor headed sorority girl, the puttering Civil War buff, the real estate maven, the brother who hides his gayness, the would-be Scarlet O’Hara. It’s too easy to make fun of these figures, and because it’s easy, the satire often seems superficial.
Too often Barnhardt's characters provide long histories of society in Charlotte or the real estate market. In such moments the novel grinds to a halt.
Look Away, Look Away! is a comic melodrama that in the end shows too much fondness for its own characters, even as it lambasts them.