When the well runs dry…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WESTERN ALLIANCES. By Wilton Barnhardt. St. Martin’s Press. 400 pages. $29, hardcover.

Wilton Barnhardt must have had a blast writing this latest novel. What fun, imagining (and researching?!) the travels of Roberto Costa, a spoiled, rich (inherited), overgrown kid-adult who’s never held a job and much prefers Europe to his U.S. home. Roberto travels hither and yon, soaking up culture as well as good food and drink, indulging his artistic interests, adding to his eclectic tally of sexual dalliances and trying to convince himself that he’s gathering material to write his Notebook, a masterpiece for the future. Even though he rarely actually writes much of anything.

As I read, I found myself wondering if Barnhardt actually traveled to all the places he writes about – and whether he was able to claim all the travel expenses as a tax write-off. Writer’s research, you know.

It’s been 10 years since Barnhardt’s most recent novel, Lookaway, Lookaway, was a smashing success. Sure, unlike, Roberto, Barnhardt really does have a job, teaching fiction writing in the graduate Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at N.C. State University in Raleigh. But he must have spent a lot of time in Europe, right?

Reading this novel meant I was going along for the ride (or rides), and I admit that at first I found the journey a little rough going. Accounts of jaded people – male, female and variations of both – playing a sort of musical beds for their casual entertainment, eventually becoming contemptuous of one another, were bordering on tedious.

But Barnhardt is such a good writer. His brilliant descriptions, characterizations, wit and satire are hard to resist. And despite myself, I couldn’t help but care about Roberto, or Bobby as most people call him.

So I read on, to enjoy his wide-ranging travels vicariously. I also wanted to see what would become of him, and maybe to find out if he’d ever grow up. Soon, I realized that I was having a lot of fun myself joining Barnhardt and Roberto/Bobby on this improbable journey.

The setting is the 2008 financial crisis in the United States and its aftermath. Roberto and his petulant older sister, Rachel, have a difficult time understanding that their lavish supply of unearned money could be about to run out, largely because they failed to heed their father’s warnings and follow his instructions.

Their father, Salvador Costa, from the large Portuguese community in Providence, R.I., is hardly your typical Wall Street tycoon. Yet, he finds himself in charge of one of the biggest banks when the crash is coming. He makes some unorthodox choices and decisions that will have consequences for his offspring.

Roberto and Rachel have a fraught relationship at best. And then there’s their mother, Lena, who since her divorce from their father has spent her time devising schemes to get more of the family’s money, even at the expense of her children, when she’s not indulging her hypochondria.

Bobby is a tall, handsome, intelligent young man who spends much of his time using and being used by friends, acquaintances and relatives. He has a heart condition that limits his sexual prowess – sometimes that’s a problem, but sometimes it proves useful. And money makes up for a lot.

Bobby has an understandably cynical view of the world. This novel is hardly what you’d call plot-driven, and yet Barnhardt works in some really creative plot twists as the Costa family members, in particular, scheme against one another.

Barnhardt is one of our contemporary literary geniuses, and he’s never been afraid to try new things or hesitant to indulge his exuberant spirit.  Western Alliances is his fifth novel, with the first having appeared 34 years ago. Although he grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Barnhardt didn’t write what you’d call a Southern novel until his fourth, the much-praised Lookaway, Lookaway, a highly entertaining, satire-laced tale that unveils some things the folks in Charlotte, a New South metropolis haunted by its Old South past, would rather keep hidden.  Oh, and it also gives quite a revealing view of Greek life at the flagship University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.

Now Barnhardt takes on the larger story of Western Alliances, looking at the disparate cultures of Europe and the United States as his travels take him to much of Western Europe, and also to disturbing and frightening experiences in such places as Serbia and Russia. Then there are the conflicts and never-ending drama of the shifting alliances within the Costa family,

Readers who go along for the fun – and there is plenty of that – may be surprised when they eventually realize that what has seemed a highly enjoyable, often hilarious, yet somewhat aimless travelogue and satire also has a good deal to say about wealth, privilege, moral responsibility and family ties. Surely, this is a story for our times.

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