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Book Review: Lookaway, Lookaway

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 4:13pm
Lookaway, Lookaway: A Novel
Wilton Barnhardt

Before he was an acclaimed fiction writer (Lookaway, Lookaway made several prestigious year’s best lists) Wilton Barnhardt was a sports writer. It shows in his appreciation of the details that help make yarns real and entertaining. And, no, Lookaway, Lookaway, is not another book about southern football. It’s about a far more desperate, violent, and intricate spectacle, the modern day dissolution of a Great Old Southern Family. Set in Charlotte, North Carolina, the “prefab” metropolis, with a “monster truck show” religious scene, Lookaway, Lookaway is a satire. While funnier in tone than Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full and more outrageous than Pat Conroy, it rings at least as true as either.

This is the epic saga of the Jarvis-Johnston clan. Duke, the patriarch is under the spell of his storied Civil War ancestor, General Joseph E. Johnston. Jerene, his wife, is the steel magnolia matriarch and the de facto patriarch (“Who cares what Duke does?”). The intricately plotted story unfolds in chapters narrated from the point of view of every family member in turn, each revealing their own and each other’s secrets. Good little debutante Jerelyn goes off to Chapel Hill to join a sorority whose sisters go by the nickname “the Skanks” (real sorority, real nickname, by the way). Brother Josh spends his nights seeking interracial romance on CDL, Charlotte Down Low, a gay hook-up website. Dorie, Josh’s black lesbian BFF seduces fine southern ladies. Calamities ensue and are revealed: rape, murder, grand larceny, society gala fundraisers, illegitimate children, abortions, domestic violence, Christmas dinner, interracial lust, feuding Presbyterian congregations, dueling, beastiality, blackmail, betrayal, Civil War battle re-enactments. The regional variations of Carolina barbeque, hush puppies, and cole slaw are explicated.

Lookaway, Lookaway is an exploration of the myth of the Great Old Southern Family. Although that myth does not enjoy the dominance in southern culture it once did, it still has millions of devotees. Its shrines, southern show-mansions stuffed with antiques, are maintained by private families and municipalities at great expense throughout the south. Barnhardt’s acid satire should, at the very least, inspire the reader to wonder at the hypocrisy, fragility and ruinous cost of Great Old Southern Family pretensions. As grandmother Jeannette tells her stone-hard daughter, Jerene, “It is naïve to think that anybody that has got 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, doesn't get spent, means that something…. unpleasant had to happen along the way.”

Jerene, the matriarch, is the great character. She first commands the reader’s attention when she lays down the law for her daughter, who is experiencing a teachable moment, “Darling, in the future, you may not invite to a bed any young man about whom you do not know his father’s profession, his eventual means, his status in this world. That is a one-way ticket to the mobile home park. These are most important details.” Thus, from mother to daughter, hard earned wisdom is imparted and the Great Old Southern Family is maintained.
We know Jerene, and the awful Jeannette. We know Josh, brother Beau, sister Annie, Aunt Dillard (Jerene to her sister Dillard, “You may not become a cat lady. You may not become eccentric beyond a certain point.”) daddy Duke, wife Kate and Uncle Gaston. And we know bits and pieces of all of these stories that wrap around the Jarvis-Johnstons in their decline.

Readers who enjoy the works of Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, and Clyde Edgerton will not want to miss Lookaway, Lookaway.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

"I Want to Learn..."

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 9:22am

I’ve been thinking about learning lately. I don’t really want to take a formal course or go back to school but I want to study something. This caused me to think about the free resources that Birmingham Public Library and other entities provide for lifelong learning.

Birmingham Public Library (BPL) Classes, Programs & Workshops
Check out the BPL Calendar of Events for upcoming classes, programs and workshops. At the top of the page, choose your library.

The April 2014 computer class schedule for the BPL Regional Library Computer Center (RLCC) is already posted. Follow the instructions on the class schedule to register for classes. The RLCC is located at the Central Library. If you are interested in computer classes at other branches, use the BPL Calendar of Events and do a keyword search for computer.

If you are looking for classes, programs, and workshops in any of the Jefferson County public libraries, check out their Calendar of Events and Reader.

I know the title of the series …For Dummies may sound off-putting but these are some of the best introductory books around and they cover a variety of topics. Likewise, I never liked the word “idiot” but the Complete Idiot’s Guide series makes me feel like I’m less of one. When you have the time, pick a subject that’s interesting and check out a book in one of these series.

Birmingham Public Library Databases & Free Online Resources
BBC Languages is available to the public; you don’t need a library card. I really liked this website. You can learn British Isle languages: Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Ulster Scots, Cornish, Manx, and Guernsey French as well as phrases in more than 40 languages.

Ben's (Benjamin Franklin) Guide to U.S. Government for Kids is a wonderful website administered by the U.S. Government Printing Office and the courses are specifically tailored by grade levels.

CIA Factbook has information on the people, history, geography, economy, etc. of other countries.

Encyclopedia of Alabama this free encyclopedia is recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about Alabama’s people, history, government and culture.

Learn 2 Type is a free keyboarding tutorial. Click on Typing Tutor Account to create an account and start learning to type.

Mango Languages is available to Birmingham Public Library cardholders and is a great resource if you want to learn Mandarin (Chinese), Japanese, French, German or Spanish.

TED Talks are short talks, usually 18 minutes or less, and they cover various topics. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. You can look at the videos or tune into TED RadioHour on NPR (National Public Radio).

Free Online Courses and Classes
Coursera provides free and fee online courses from universities across the country and around the world.

Khan Academy is a K-12 video resource that covers math, science and some of the humanities. The great thing is each video is only 10 minutes long.

Harvard Open Courses: Open Learning Initiative offers free recorded lectures taught by Harvard faculty.

MITOpenCourseware is similar to Harvard and Yale’s open courses but they have a larger selection of courses. I just finished watching the “Dress for Success” segment of the 2010 Graduate Women at MIT (GWAMIT) Leadership Conference. I enjoyed the conference and plan to watch the keynote speech.

OpenLearn is the website for free courses through the Open University. They offer over 650 courses with different skill levels: introductory, beginner, intermediate, advanced and master’s levels. College credit is not available.

Open Yale Courses are free recorded lectures taught by teachers and scholars at Yale University. College credit is not available.

I hope you will use these free resources and learn about things that interest and challenge you. While working on this blog article, I signed up for a computer programming course in Coursera titled, “Programming for Everybody.” If you want to know how the computer class is going and my experience with Coursera, please feel free to e-mail me at

Maya Jones
West End Library