Heading Out to Wonderful
Robert Goolrick's debut work of fiction, A RELIABLE WIFE, became a book club sensation, a darkly Gothic meditation on sex, identity and relationships that seemed to dramatize in novelistic form many of the themes he explored in his memoir, THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL, his much-anticipated follow-up, is less broadly shocking or titillating, although it continues to explore themes of sin and forgiveness, secrets and lies, identities created and abandoned, memory and forgetfulness. As the opening line reminds readers, "The thing is, all memory is fiction," and this divide between events and their interpretation is at the heart of the book.
"HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL reads like one of those old Southern ballads of heartbreak and revenge... Haunting and unsettling, like a melody in minor tune, [it] will linger in readers' memories long after its final notes fade away."
HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL opens in 1948, as Charlie Beale rolls into the small town of Brownsburg, Virginia. It's the kind of small southern town where "no crime had ever been committed," where memories of the Civil War often seem as fresh as those of the recently completed Second World War, where every single person in town attends one church or another on Sunday mornings.
Charlie is a charmer, but also a loner with a puzzling history that is never fully revealed, either to the townspeople or to readers. He comes to town bearing a suitcase full of cash and harboring a reluctance to be pinned down. Even when he finds himself a job and buys himself a house, he often prefers to sleep in the back of his pickup truck or even directly on the ground outdoors.
Charlie's first and only friends in town are his employer, the butcher Will Haislett, and Will's wife, Alma. Their five-year-old son, Sam, latches on to Charlie immediately, calling him "Beebo" and idolizing him as another father figure. Charlie's easy way of talking to him, his understanding of baseball, and his obvious affection for the boy all make Sam fiercely loyal to Charlie, a loyalty that will become a matter of life and death as the story unfolds.
There is another newcomer to Brownsburg as well: Sylvan Glass, the lovely young wife of the town's wealthiest landowner. Harrison Glass essentially bought Sylvan from her desperately poor hillbilly parents in exchange for financial security, and since then, he has endeavored to remake her into his ideal compliant wife, even as she has striven to remake herself into a figure of glamour and beauty like the movie stars she idolizes.
Sylvan offers Charlie opportunities for comfort, generosity and redemption. Charlie offers Sylvan the same sort of escape fantasy that she finds in the movies. But as their affair becomes more and more consuming, and as young Sam gets caught in the middle without really understanding what he's seeing, betrayal and tragedy seem unavoidable.
HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL reads like one of those old Southern ballads of heartbreak and revenge, as Goolrick gradually reveals the kinds of secrets that Brownsburg residents would prefer be interred in the fertile ground of their lush river valley. Goolrick's language is lyrical as well, as he describes not only Sylvan and Charlie's relationship but also its ripples and repercussions. The characters' motivations are not always crystal-clear, but that would seem to make the book, like A RELIABLE WIFE, ripe for discussion and debate.
Haunting and unsettling, like a melody in minor tune, HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL will linger in readers' memories long after its final notes fade away.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 11, 2012
Heading Out to Wonderful
- Publication Date: June 12, 2012
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Algonquin Books
- ISBN-10: 1565129237
- ISBN-13: 9781565129238