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Raleigh's Wilton Barnhardt on his new novel

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The past lives of Wilton Barnhardt include being a NASCAR beat writer for Sports Illustrated and playing piano on an album by the experimental rock group Swans. And that only takes us up to 1987.

Before settling down to the life of the Southern novelist, Barnhardt lived in New York and England. He is a longtime member of the MFA creative writing program at N.C. State, a distinguished department that includes Jill McCorkle, John Kessel, Dorianne Laux and John Balaban.

At Quail Ridge Books on Friday, Aug. 23, Barnhardt launches the publication of Lookaway, Lookaway, his fourth novel—and first in more than a decade. Barnhardt's comic romp, named for the refrain of "Dixie," is an old-fashioned family saga, much like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. But in tone and content, and its bawdy skewering of Southern sacred cows, it more closely recalls Handling Sin, the 1983 novel by Hillsborough's Michael Malone.

Barnhardt introduces us to the Charlotte-based Johnston clan, which claims Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston as an ancestor. In a zany yet ultimately harrowing chapter that will remind some readers of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, his book takes aim at the social hierarchy of the UNC fraternities and sororities. But in contrast to Wolfe, who labored to disguise "Durham" and "Duke University" in his mammoth novel, Barnhardt sprinkles real Tar Heel names and places throughout—with one significant exception. Although Charlotte comes in for vivid satirical abuse as a city of banks, churches, strip malls and McMansions, there's no mention of longtime mayor Pat McCrory. "Had I written the book six months later," Barnhardt says, "and not sold the book when I did, I sure I would have hauled off on him!"

An edited version of our interview follows.

On Jerene, his book's heroine, and the origin of the Southern steel magnolia:

With a quarter of the men—white men—killed in the Civil War and about another quarter [wounded], the South became a matriarchy on the white side—and had always been [a matriarchy], because of the cruelty of the slavery, on the black side.

I never wanted [Jerene] to be camp. I never wanted her to have one hand on the hip saying some hilarious one-liner. She never does. She seems to be without humor in some ways, although I think she's a very funny character and creates a good deal of comedy around her. I wanted to be very certain that she was as serious as she thinks she is. I think higher society and making marriages for your children and keeping the reputation of the family intact—I think it's deadly serious business for Jerene.

On two of those new archetypes, Josh and Dorrie, two younger, more appealing characters:

They're sort of exiles—double and triple exiles from their families, from their communities, and to some extent the gay community because they seem to be, you know, as Dorrie says, they're race traitors. They're interested exclusively in people of the other race, and I would imagine they're tired of hearing others speculate as to their psychological motivations when, to both Josh and Dorrie, it's just simple attraction. The most attractive thing they've ever seen is, in Dorrie's case, is a white woman—a powerful, attractive, smart, charismatic white woman—and in Josh's case, a beautiful young man of color.

On the other hand, I don't think they're that "out there." I don't think they're that extraordinary. People are pursuing their romantic dreams all over North Carolina and the South, and probably always have, and they don't seem particularly conflicted or ashamed of anything they're doing, which I think is accurate.

On whether there is still value in social subterfuge, such as the moment in the novel when Jerene suggests that Dorrie marry Josh:

I think [Jerene] is not persuaded by her children that her values have been superseded to this new, contemporary, all-forgiving, all-permitting world. I think she actually, and I think it's for the reader to discuss, I think it's possible she's right. I think it's possible these forms and manners, particularly manners, I've always thought maybe all those years working on a thesis [on] Henry James, maybe some of those Jamesian notions have gotten through to me at long last, that without manners we're nothing. That without form and pleasantries of society, the small graces of our human interaction and refinement, we're finished as a species. I have a feeling Jerene would agree with that principle.

On researching Greek life at UNC. Is it really that bad?

It's not really off the record. The septic tank filled with unchewed [vomited] food that had to be dug up—that really happened. The drugs—around 2003, the cocaine and Tri Delts—all of that's true. The nude run through the library [is true]. I got the tale of the blob out of a Greek magazine. I'd been collecting Greek magazines and newsletters and getting online and looking at the fraternity and sorority internal sites they would put out and, traditionally, brag about. I can only imagine if I'd had the password.

A lot of girls during rush keep a journal and they post it, and I read every word. I also walked around during rush.

No! It's worse than what I came up with. I can't imagine a parent with a conscience allowing their child to do this.

Transcription by Mary Alta Feddeman.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sagas of the South."

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