“Heading Out to Wonderful” by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95, 292 pages)
“Brownsburg, Virginia, 1948, the kind of town that existed in the years right after the war, where the terrible American wanting hadn’t touched yet, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn’t have …”
Into this small town one day arrives Charlie Beale, a stranger from parts unknown. He has a suitcase full of his things — which include a set of high-quality butcher knives — and a suitcase full of cash, which he’s using to buy up land in the country around Brownsburg. He’s looking for a place to settle down, a place to call home, though he is warned that “before you get to wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through all right” — and Brownsburg is all right.
Goolrick makes sure it’s not an idealized small town — it’s strictly segregated, some men beat their wives and everyone else pretends not to notice, and there’s plenty of sin for the hellfire-and-damnation preachers to rail against. But he also imbues the novel with a strong sense of place in both the town and the surrounding countryside of mountains and valleys, rivers and farms, the breeze and the winding roads and the old mountain songs; it’s easy to see how the natural beauty of the land could be taken for “wonderful.”
Charlie finds work with Will Haislett, the butcher, and is introduced to most of the townspeople as they come to buy their meat. Five-year-old Sam, Will’s son, takes an immediate shine to Charlie, and becomes the witness to the events of the next year.
The story is told by Sam, as he remembers it decades later, and as he remembers other people’s accounts of it. So there are gaps that are never filled in, because what a 5-year-old boy notices (and how he interprets it) isn’t the same as what an adult would notice. But that doesn’t matter, because even though the story is told from a distance of many years, it’s very much a here-and-now story.
In Brownsburg, no matter how hard he might try, Charlie doesn’t have a simple life without yearning for things he can’t have. When he meets Sylvan Glass, the much younger, Hollywood-entranced, bought-and-paid-for wife of the town’s richest man, we immediately know things will go only one way between them, and that it is not going to end well. Everyone in town knows about the affair, and everyone knows it’s not going to end well, but nobody — particularly Sam’s parents — wants to know too much about it: “They didn’t know how to ask the things that were on their mind, so there they were, all locked together, complicit, and nobody said anything to anybody.”
But exactly how it’s going to end is the question.
Goolrick spools out the events at just the right pace, interspersing the progression of Charlie and Sylvan’s illicit passion with other events — a townwide oyster feed, a birthday party, an outing to the movies — as well as fleshing out some of the other people in town: spinster twin sisters, the eccentric black dressmaker who can work magic, and Boaty Glass, Sylvan’s filthy (in every sense) rich and roundly disliked husband.
But always lurking, as in Goolrick’s previous novel, “A Reliable Wife,” is the dark undercurrent of suspense, as we hurtle toward finding out what happens. And we hurtle — the book is hard to put down.
Don’t let the idyllic cover fool you: “Heading Out to Wonderful” is as sad and mournful as the mountain songs of Virginia. But it’s a beautifully told story of human failings and yearnings, and redemption sought but never quite attained.