. . . South
As everyone around here knows, I’ve been sick, really sick. After several days of terrible pain, Dave drove me down the mountain to the emergency room—otherwise known as The Village of the Damned—where I waited for five hours before being seen by the ER doc. The other lost souls in the waiting room included a stroke victim slumped in a wheelchair, a half starved, young woman clearly in the throes of a psychotic break, plus the usual folks with no health insurance, their faces covered with paper masks, who use the ER as a primary care facility.
Fortunately, I had a really good book to get lost in, Lookaway, Lookaway, by Wilton Barnhardt of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Years ago an agent told me I should exploit my Southern background in my writing. She meant Southern as in mansions covered in honeysuckle, spirited young belles and old black maids dispensing the wisdom of the ages. I tried to explain how the south wasn’t really like that anymore, probably never was, but it took this author to really nail it. Barnhardt is Dickens with a drawl, doused in bourbon, ready to put to rest every illusion and delusion the south has manufactured about itself since the first convict ever set foot on Georgia soil.
The Charlotte, North Carolina portrayed in this novel IS my southern background. In fact, it’s where I was born and raised. Finally, someone got around to skewering the antebellum fantasies of Southern gentry and laying waste to the crass culture of Banktown, as Charlotte is known these days.
Barnhardt spares no one — not the golf-playing alcoholics at the country club bar decked out in plaid pants and pink Polo shirts, not the fans of southern romance novels who swarm to a local writer’s book signing in a soulless strip mall, not the real estate developers who stub out depressing lots in a sprawling suburban wasteland, not the sanctimonious church goers lurking on a hook-up site called charlottedownlow nor the couture-wearing society dames who bare their well-manicured talons on the local museum board. No one.
About the only three things that survive this writer’s close-to-the-bone satire are the lush Piedmont landscape, Carolina barbeque (both eastern and Piedmont style) and Carolina coleslaw.
Praise the Lord. No more low-country, jasmine-scented scenarios. This book is as raw as the red clay landscape it comes from.
You see, I always thought I might go back to North Carolina. I mean, I bought the whole thing about how North Carolina was the New South, forward thinking, poised to be a leader in commerce and the arts. In fact before we bought the ranch, Dave and I looked for property there once, wading through underbrush-covered homesites always on the lookout for copperheads everywhere we stepped.
You know, North Carolina has more venomous snakes than any other state in the nation, and that doesn’t even count its new governor, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, and the rest of the state legislators.
Unless you’re from NC, you’re probably not paying attention to what’s going on in the great Tarheel State. Let me explain as simply as I can: The Klan (or descendents thereof) has ridden into Raleigh. Only this time its members are dressed in Brooks Brothers suits instead of white robes and are armed with Mont Blanc pens instead of burning crosses. In a few short months, they have managed to do the unthinkable: They have turned North Carolina into South Carolina — a backward place I always thought of as full of redneck racists still fuming about the War of Northern Aggression, still mourning the Dreadful Surrender. Short of hush puppies and the beaches, I didn’t really see how SC contributed much to the national well-being. Ah but, that was before its former governor went “hiking on the Appalachian trail” and gave us all a new euphemism for cheating on your spouse and something to laugh at, which is always good for the soul. So, there’s that.
Lookaway, Lookaway pulled me through some dark hours, made me laugh, even though I was sick and in pain, and helped make sense of my upbringing as in — You have not been alone, Jane. Someone else was right there with you rolling their eyes.
I go back to NC these days to see family, and after a few days spent with bankers and stockbrokers in the humid air under the crepe myrtle and magnolias, I start to get itchy for something a bit more rugged. These guys give the appearance that the hardest thing they’ve ever done in life is hit a golf ball over a water hazard. Foreclosing on poor people? They don’t even break a sweat doing that, so it doesn’t count.
I can never really relax until the plane is over the granite spine of the Sierras, and I see Yosemite’s alpine meadows and the snow covered north faces of the mountains.
The mountain west is my home now. It can be a stark landscape, full of rock, sky and icy lakes, but there’s something about it that makes me feel stronger, wilder, more imaginative, freer.
And then there are the cowboys. You’ll never catch them wearing plaid golf pants and pink shirts. Trust me. Never.
A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Ladies, need I say more?