I read a fair amount of books: good, bad, and occasionally ugly. I read some worth passing on and some worth passing over. But I seldom read a book I consider Great. To be Great, the author must stun me with his or her command of language, so much so that I wonder if they made a deal with the devil. Lookaway, Lookaway is a big book that thunked mightily onto my ribs each night when I would drop it, between paragraphs, to marvel at Wilton Barnhardt’s mastery.
These characters mesmerized me: the steely matriarch Jerleen, the enraged daughter Annie, the tragic father Duke, the thwarted elder son Beau. I didn’t necessarily want to meet them, and I won’t say I grew to love them. But I was awed by them, and hungrily curious about their motivations and next moves. These characters are catapulted off the page by Barnhardt’s use of language. Who writes like this? Not enough of us, that’s for sure. At times, the story borders on too much—the epic carnage of one family Christmas dinner nearly tipped the novel into the baroque. But Barnhardt knows just when to balance a scene with a bit of comic restraint. There is plenty of humor alongside the pathos.
This is the story of a pedigreed, sinking ship of a family with its heads, Duke and Jerleen, clinging tightly to the disappearing mast. I don’t always want to read about unhappy families which, despite Tolstoy’s proclamation, do seem to be all alike. The booze-fueled revelations and rants, the destructive secrets, the nursed grudges—it’s enough to send me running for my copy of Anne of Green Gables. And reading about Southern fractious clans? Well you start to feel like you drank a gallon of that syrupy sweet tea that seems to be what 70% of Southerners’ blood is composed of. But in the right hands, it works. Sometimes I want a huge, absorbing family drama, and I am happy to have all the soiled laundry aired out on the line in plain sight if the author is as superb as Barnhardt. I cannot praise this novel highly enough and if I go on, my gushing will probably take on a bad southern accent, y’all.