I have a complex relationship with Wilton Barnhardt. (As a reader, I mean; it’s not like I’m his stalker or anything). I’ve already written on this blog about his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life (1989), one of my favourite novels of all time. I had a different but equally intense relationship with his second novel, Gospel (1993), the book that should have gotten all the hype that went to The DaVinci Code. Then his third novel, Show World, came out in 1999 and I didn’t read it. The blurb didn’t grab me and I didn’t want my opinion of a favourite author tarnished by a book I didn’t enjoy. I figured I’d wait for his next book.
Then FOURTEEN YEARS went by. After the internet happened I occasionally googled Wilton Barnhardt and found that he was teaching writing courses, but didn’t seem to be producing any new novels. I was afraid he’d just given up.
It had been awhile since I’d googled his name, and I tried it just a couple of weeks ago only to find that he had an entirely new novel — the saga of a Southern family — coming out this very month. This time it didn’t matter whether the blurb sounded interesting or not; I downloaded it as soon as it was available.
And I have … mixed feelings. There were certainly very enjoyable moments in Lookaway, Lookaway, but I doubt it’ll make my Top 10 Best Books list this year, which is too bad given how long I’ve waited for a new book from an author I loved so much.
Lookaway, Lookaway, is indeed the saga of an American Southern family, full of threadbare wealth and ferociously maintained social position. The novel has three sections: Scandal Averted (set in 2003), Scandal Regained (set in 2007-2008), and Scandal Redux (2012). Which “scandal” is referred to never becomes quite clear — numerous things happen that could bring shame upon the family name, but the plot never really converges around a single incident and its consequences.
I thought it was going to. Early in the long middle section of the book something genuinely shocking happens, something that seems to connect logically with the 2003 event described in the book’s first section (thus justifying why that section is there at all). It seems like the rest of the book will be about how each character is affected by the ramifications of that Genuinely Shocking Event, and it is shocking enough and yet in-character enough that it could be the engine that drives the rest of the book. But then … it’s not. We jump on to another character’s point of view, another set of problems, and the earlier Shocking Event, while not forgotten, recedes into the background, its consequences (or indeed its motivations) never fully explored.
The real problem with this novel is the multiple points of view. I love multiple points of view, but they’re hard to do well and I don’t think they’re handled as well as they should be here. Only one character, as far as I can recall, ever gets a second turn at being the main character after their viewpoint chapter has passed, which means that Barnhardt sets characters up in interesting situations and then we only see the outcome of those situations through the perspectives of other characters, not those directly involved. Some of the characters are more interesting and easy to relate to than others — always a problem with multiple points of view — but none of them has the kind of power and appeal of characters like Gil and Emma in Emma, or Lucy and Patrick in Gospel.
It might work a bit better to think of these as linked short stories rather than a novel, but that undercuts even further the device of organizing the novel around a “scandal” the implications of which are never fully explored. I have to say that while there were certainly great moments in this book — Gaston, the arrogant alcoholic bestselling Southern author, stands out as a favourite — overall, it was a disappointment, and the ending was particularly disappointing. Also, while there are sparkling, insightful and funny moments here, there are also incidences of strangely sloppy writing — like the narration occasionally slipping into present tense from the usual past tense for no discernable reason.
It’s been 20 years since the release of Gospel and I’m still waiting for the next great Wilton Barnhardt novel. I wanted to badly to love this book, and I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read it. You might have a lot of fun with it, especially if you like dysfunctional families, because this one has it all. But I would suggest you don’t go into the novel with expectations as high as mine were.