Barnhardt’s fourth novel is a revelation: witty, savage and bighearted all at once, it is the Southern novel for the 21st century.
The Jarvis-Johnston clan is a Charlotte, N.C., family of distinction; they have all that matters to society: money, pedigree and manners enough to keep secrets buried. But, as each family member is revealed (spanning a decade, every character has their own chapter), the ruin of the family becomes imminent. When Jerilyn Johnston heads off to Chapel Hill, she seems the one child who will live up to her mother Jerene’s exacting standards. But when she pledges Sigma Kappa Nu, filled with rich, surgery-augmented party girls who hope to raise spring-break money by starting their own online porn site, Jerilyn falls into the abyss, which is a place her uncle Gaston Jarvis frequents with pleasure. Though in his youth he was a Young Turk of the literary world, for the last two decades he has churned out a regrettable Civil War series featuring the adventures of Cordelia Florabloom. The books have made him rich and bitter, his only solace a bar stool at the club. The great Southern novel he wanted to write, Lookaway Dixieland, conceived with his comrade in arms Duke Johnston, serves as a treacherous reminder of his wasted life. Jerene and Duke’s other children—Annie, the much-married left-wing rebel; Josh, who spends his evenings trolling for black men on the down low; and Bo, a Presbyterian minister who despises his congregation—are all beyond their parents’ control, contributing to the mother of all Christmas dinner disasters. Perhaps most poignant is patriarch Duke Johnston: the golden boy beloved by everyone, offered the world but who, in the end, locks himself away in his Civil War library, fixated on an insignificant battle, shielded by history.
Barnhardt masterfully reimagines the Southern gothic: There is every kind of sordid deed committed, but there is also an abundance of humanity and grace.