This satire of the modern-day South is consciously modeled after a Victorian novel. As one of the character observes about a book he plans to write: it would be like a Sir Walter Scott or Anthony Trollope, as a great family fights to hold its fortune for a final generation before the collapse and ruin.
Like a Victorian novel, this is a closely observed examination of a small group of people that illustrates the values of their time and place. The cast of characters:
Joseph Beauregard "Duke" Johnston: Golden boy at Duke University, expected to become Governor of North Carolina, but instead retired early and spends his days sitting around the house with his Civil War books and memorabilia, waiting for the money to run out.
Jerene Jarvis Johnston: Duke's wife is beautiful, with a core of solid steel under the perfect coiffure and clothing. Nothing and nobody will stop her from preserving her family's top position in Charlotte society.
Gaston Jarvis: Jerene's younger brother and Duke's close friend from Duke University. Gaston has become fabulously wealthy writing a potboiler series of novels set in the Civil War. He's wasted his talent and knows it, and spends every spare minute propping up the bar at the country club and launching bitter barbs at the nearest target, which is often a family member.
Annie: Duke and Jerene's daughter, who has always lived to reject everything the family holds dear.
Jerilyn: Annie's opposite, little sister Jerilyn just wants to have a successful debut and get her Mrs. degree.
Bo: Duke's son, a Presbyterian minister who feels he is ineffective––and he's right.
Kate: Bo's wife relates to parishioners' concerns better than Bo does, but she can be too outspoken for a pastor's wife and she longs to return to more hands-on work with the poor.
Joshua: Duke's semi-closeted gay son, who has a yen for black men who operate on the down low.
Dillard: Jerene's sister, a widow who lost her only son to drugs.
Jeannette: Jerene, Dillard and Gaston's mother, who failed to protect them from their abusive father.
Dorrie: Joshua's best friend and constant companion, Dorrie is a black lesbian who is practically a member of the family.
I was predisposed to like this book, because I'm a big fan of Wilton Barnhardt's Gospel, but it was very uneven. Each chapter features one of the book's key characters, and how interesting or appealing each chapter was depended on the character. Unfortunately, the book starts with Jerilyn, who is the weakest character in the book, and her disastrous introduction to Greek life at the University of North Carolina. Don't give up on the book until you get past Jerilyn, because then we move on to Gaston, who is wildly outrageous and entertainingly offensive.
The bottom line for me was that those chapters with the highest Jerene quotient would get top ratings, and the lower the Jerene quotient, the more the rating would drop. Jerene is like some combination of Scarlett O'Hara, Hilary Clinton and maybe Nancy Reagan. You do NOT want to mess with this woman. But people try to get around her or go up against her, and the best parts of the book take place while they're trying and she's eviscerating them–––but with plenty of southern politesse.
And poor Jerene does have plenty to deal with. There is enough bad behavior and scandal in this group to take up two Tennessee Williams plays. You thought Christmas dinner with your family was combative? Dinner at the Johnstons' place takes full body armor to survive.
While the Christmas dinner scene was a terrific combination of appalling and hilarious, and every scene with Jerene was something Machiavelli could only dream of, other parts of the book were often far less successful. Way too much of the book was devoted to the Johnstons' children, a sorry lot without much of interest about them. So the book tends to bog down with them, and it was at those times that I would notice other flaws, like the extreme improbability of some plot elements (even taking into account that this is, after all, satire)–––which I probably would have happily slid right past if the book had stayed as lively as it does when focused on other characters.
In the end, I think that Barnhardt's organization of the book into these character-based chapters worked against him. It could have been a far stronger and more consistent story with a different structure. As it is, some chapters are boring and/or annoying, while others are acid-etched tragicomedy genius. Barnhardt writes beautifully, so even the unsuccessful chapters aren't terrible, but I think this is just not as good as Barnhardt's other work.