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Cepeda: The matter with class

First Published Aug 17 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 17 2014 01:01 am

CHICAGO • "In every walk of life, there are senseless rules, payoffs and shakedowns, quirks, unjust rituals," explains Jerene Johnston, the matriarch of the privileged Southern family so deliciously skewered in Wilton Barnhardt’s irresistible novel "Lookaway, Lookaway."

Explaining the familial responsibility of the traditional "debut," Jerene tells her rebellious, ultra-liberal daughter Annie: "Society is just as silly, but the debut is a time-honored way that good families have come up with to increase the odds of their decent young women marrying decent young men and not living in a shotgun shack, working two jobs, having been left by two or three good-for-nothing husbands with a pickup truckload of screaming babies with full diapers."

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She then goes in for the kill: "I’m going to tell you something and it may take you until you’re forty to know I’m right about it. Class matters. You can be quite happy with some European foreigner, or even someone from another race if they’re from your class. But marry beneath it ..."

I’m not giving away anything by divulging that it wasn’t long before Annie realized her upright, steamroller Mother-with-a-capital-M was all too correct in her assessment.

Class does matter. We all know it is an enduring part of American life, one that those at the top seek to maintain while defenders of the less privileged dissect, disavow, satirize and mock. Why should they have all the fun?

There are few better ways to understand high class in this country — and remain unscathed — than to explore the inner workings of families struggling to maintain it. All the more enjoyable if your tour guides are curious, observant writers who are insightful enough to wield their sharp knives with an eye toward making the take-down as harsh, funny and human as possible.

There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe Barnhardt’s Southern satire. An investigation of one well-respected North Carolina’s clan’s epic descent into ordinariness, "Lookaway, Lookaway" is filled with gossip and drama, salacious and otherwise. And more etiquette, descriptions of succulent foodstuffs and insufferable weather than you can shake a Confederate flag at.

But that’s just the sprig on the frosty mint julep.

Between vivid scenes of rowdy Southern-style sorority and fraternity parties and damp Civil War re-enactments, there’s plenty to chew on in the Johnston family’s continual quarrels about states’ rights, slavery and its abolition, the legacy of racism in America, Southern Christianity, poverty and privilege.

When you’re done there, take a trip up north to the fictional New England island of Waskeke, where Maggie Shipstead’s "Seating Arrangements" is set. There Winn Van Meter, the scion of a once-powerful family, holds on to the last embers of his paternal lineage as he marries off an older daughter and finally sees the world through the eyes of her younger sister, if ever so briefly.

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Arguably, major characters in this book are the physical structures that house the accomplishments and aspirations of the Van Meter family.

There is the vaunted, "neat Yankee face" of the summer home located in a "quiet neighborhood inhabited by quality people." The reminiscing of ivy-covered walls of Harvard and Princeton. And Shipstead’s luxurious leather-mahogany-silver-porcelain descriptions of the elite clubs that Winn Van Meter is a member of or lusts to join. With names such as Ophidian, Vespasian and Pequod, they set the stage for understanding a certain type of striving.

Dominique, a family friend, assesses the angst: "They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power. ... [The Van Meters and their peers] came from families dedicated to perpetuating some moldy half-understood code of conduct passed along by generations of imposters. But, she supposed, people who believed themselves to be well-bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because then they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth."

The beauty of being alien visitors, stealing a few whiffs of the elite’s rarefied air, is in understanding that everyone’s family money woes, rifts and jealousies may be more or less grand but not terribly different.

Annie Johnston decries Southern family gatherings: "You came away judged, as to weight, as to economic progress, as to who was making great marriages, getting good promotions."

Who can’t relate to that?


Twitter: @estherjcepeda

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