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The Splendid Monstress

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

Jerene is the supreme bucker-upper. And it turns out she has had quite a bit to buck up from. She grew up trying to dodge a drunken, physically abusive father, trying to please a spiteful, demanding, emotionally dessicated mother, trying to outwit and leave behind a teenage pregnancy. Slowly, in glancing references, we are allowed to glimpse what Jerene has been up against, and her weird, brittle energy and striving begin to look a lot like strength of character. Strength of warped character, but nevertheless.

Jerene is devoted to her family legacy, by which she means some paintings she inherited. Her real family legacy, all generations of it, is far more complicated. When Annie, her oldest daughter, refused to have a debut so many years ago, Jerene appealed to her sense of duty “to the generations before and after.”

“You think a debut and all this society stuff is bullshit,” she began. Annie certainly was surprised to hear her mother say it, booolshit, with her melodic cadences. “Well, I agree with you. You want to be a rock ’n roller or some kind of revolutionary? I have news for you: there’s bullshit in those worlds too. In every walk of life, there are senseless rules, payoffs and shakedowns, quirks, unjust rituals…. You want to go work in a women’s shelter and give away all your debutante money? Go see what kind of dreadful politics and chicanery reigns in those charitable organizations…. I know from my involvement in years and years of committee work that the booolshit you are too good for is lying thick on the ground in all aspects of life.”

Jerene is smart, the smartest of the bunch, and terrifyingly unsentimental. Every bit of her intelligence is needed to keep her family where she wants it: prominent in Charlotte society. The rest of the Jarvis/Johnston clan are just not as good at handling the booolshit.

Annie remains a politically self-righteous daughter, rebelling against her parents long after they have lost interest in her now middle-aged radical ranting, marrying the wrong men, and blaming her weight for everything wrong in her life. Jerene’s oldest son, Bo, is a mildly pompous Presbyterian minister with less faith than he would wish and far less charisma than his parishioners would like. Bo is married to a straightforward, plain-talking young woman who wants only to feed the poor, church politics be damned, while Bo leans more and more toward exactly the hierarchical and career-improving part of church life.

The younger son, Josh, is a gay guy without ambition of any kind who works in a clothing store. His best friend, Dorrie, an African-American lesbian, accompanies him to every family function, listening with quiet contempt to the antebellum nostalgia, though she, too, takes pride in her bloodlines, which run back to New Orleans in the seventeenth century. Jerene’s sister, Dillard, is a sad sack suffering from every condition for which a medicinal remedy is advertised on television.

Then there is the Jarvis grand dame, Jeannette Jarvis, placed in a luxurious retirement home with the services of a deluxe hotel because her children thought she had only a few months left to live. That was four years ago. Jerene and Dillard can no longer afford the fees. Gaston, who has plenty of money, will not contribute one penny to his mother’s upkeep. “You see now,” Jerene tells her, “the long-term disadvantage of allowing your children to be your buffer against a brute of a husband.”

Jeannette is a poisonous narcissist, but through Barnhardt’s narrative generosity, even she gets her say, recalling her

realistic fears of falling headlong out of Society and back into the peasantry, the white trash, to have once been something and then to go back to nothing again.

It turns out, however, that even the patina of southern society she worked so hard to obtain is booolshit:

“Jeannie,” your daddy would tell me, “everybody down South got rich doing something they shouldn’t have.” I can name you the first families of the Carolinas who got rich on smuggling or selling to the British in the Revolutionary War—or the Yankees, mind you.

The cream of southern society started out as bootleggers, she says, or carpetbaggers, buying up land in the Depression, hiring goons to run off the squatters, nightriders to burn “the colored folk out of their shacks.” The precious Jarvis family legacy that Jerene is so proud of is not exempt:

It is naive to think anybody that has money got it without doing something really bad because it is much easier to be poor—that, my girl, is the natural state of things. Money runs out, money gets spent. To have so much of it that it doesn’t run out or get spent means something…unpleasant had to happen somewhere along the way.

The Jarvis unpleasantness is unpleasant, indeed—a long-standing and vicious charade. When Jerene realizes how much of the family mythology she has been disseminating is just that—mythical—her mother reassures her:

You didn’t know they were lies, Jerene. And people like those kind of lies down here. They’re good, entertaining lies—I suspect history is eighty percent those kind of lies.

With this Gothic family birthright, the Jarvis/Johnston family dinners are, not surprisingly, exquisite disasters. Gaston won’t attend even Christmas dinner if his mother will be there, so they come on alternate Christmases. It being his year, he arrives with a case of excellent wine and the fatted goose is immediately surrounded by bitter arguments and sullen grudges and ultimately a shot fired from an 1854 dueling pistol that changes everything. Yet in some ways, thanks to Jerene, even the scandal of a wife shooting her husband changes nothing. Jerene—implacable, all powerful, sharp, and piercingly funny Jerene. She is the tragic hero of the novel.

But so is the South itself, rising and falling and rising again, the Old South clinging to the heels of the New South. Barnhardt has much to say about Dixie, all of it with the love and disgust we save for those we love the most:

Southerners. Such literate, civilized folk, such charm and cleverness and passion for living, such genuine interest in people, all people, high and low, white and black…[yet] how often cities had burned, people had been strung up in trees, atrocities had been permitted to occur…. How could one place contain the other place?

It’s a question Barnhardt cannot answer, only illustrate.

When Gaston and Duke are students, Gaston plans, in the grandiose way of the young, with Duke’s grandiose encouragement, to write an important novel about the South. “Faulkner, Duke declared, had masterfully written about the post-Reconstruction South—there was no need to ever visit any of that again, for a white writer, at any rate. But what of the way we live now?” Gaston has no interest in the New South, which he sees “sinking into the monoculture of the United States, deracinated. No, it needs the grandeur of an earlier era.” And the book must be about a southern family as it rises and falls:

“They must not simply rise and fall,” Duke had said. “They have to embody the central conundrum of the South.”
“You mean, race?”
“There’s something fatal from what the slave trade fostered, a kind of barbarism side by side with the civility.”

This “something fatal” runs through the book like a quiet underground river, polluting as well as irrigating a culture that has not yet lost itself entirely in the “monoculture” of the country. There are no moral lectures in Lookaway, Lookaway; there aren’t even any lessons. But there is passion. It is a work that hides its craft but never its beauty, that is ambitious but never pretentious, that does not sacrifice nuance for power or power for nuance. The book’s careful, formal composition is invisible as you read, and it’s a beautiful read, sad and savagely funny, one place inexplicably contained in the other.

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