The Splendid Monstress

Magnum Photos
The Miss North Carolina beauty pageant, 1961; photograph by Burt Glinn

Wilton Barnhardt may not yet be a household name, but he is a fascinating writer, and Lookaway, Lookaway, his fourth novel, may be the one to get people’s attention. It certainly ought to be. Barnhardt is one of those writers who does not easily fit into the categories we’ve gotten used to. He is a male writer who writes, most often, about women. He’s been the director of the creative writing masters program at North Carolina State and has taught at numerous other colleges and universities, yet his work has none of the traits of the small, intense, overly worked products typical of so many MFA programs. He is a southerner who has not, until now, written about the South (his first novel, Emma Who Saved My Life, took place in New York City; the second, Gospel, rambled from Chicago to London to Ireland to Italy to Greece to Israel; the third, Show World, was set in Los Angeles).

Lookaway, Lookaway has the canny flair of the best contemporary novelists, but here it is put in the service not of stylish bravado but of the magnificent, obsessive reading experience of the loose, baggy monsters of the nineteenth century. The book is neither loose nor baggy—it is composed with great care and delicacy—but it has about it a span, a completeness, a fullness, and a richness that we associate with novels from that century.

An uncompromising satire of the nostalgic “legacy” of the South, the sentiment that causes states to fly the Confederate flag, this novel is also an emotional and layered reflection on a family. Barnhardt knows the eccentricity of the South and the way a culture can be twisted by its past, but more important for a novel that is more than a tract, he has a true understanding of the eccentricity of even the most conventional-seeming family. Like Trollope, the nineteenth-century male writer who best understood women, Barnhardt writes about women with comfortable familiarity. And like Trollope, who clearly was an inspiration, he knows the world is never free of politics. In this novel, Barnhardt approaches the worlds of politics, society, family life, sexual identity, and economic insecurity without naiveté, but without the knowing cynicism that is the mark of lesser satirical novels. His seriousness of purpose is joined to a joyous sense of absurdity, and the warmth and specificity of each of his southern ne’er-do-wells infuse this bright, insolent satire with both sweetness and sadness.

The two of Barnhardt’s earlier novels that I’ve read, Emma Who Saved My Life and Gospel, were beautifully written, both of them; they were, also, a bit loose and baggy in exactly the way this new novel is not. Emma had an appealing modesty and charm, but it was often asked to heft onto its shoulders a somewhat…

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