Book Review: Heading Out To Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
I’m struggling to figure out just what I want to say about Heading Out To Wonderful. The writing is lovely, and I became involved enough in the plot that I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish the book. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Heading Out To Wonderful is set in the sleepy rural town of Brownsburg, Virginia in 1948, post-war years when life in America was on the cusp of change. The author lovingly describes the quality of life in Brownsburg:
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…
A particular town, then, Brownsburg, in a particular time and place. The notion of being happy didn’t occur to most people, it just wasn’t something they thought about, and life treated them pretty well… the notion of being unhappy didn’t occur much either.
Into this small town arrives Charlie Beale, an attractive and pleasant man who appears in his truck one day, bringing nothing but two suitcases, one filled with butcher knives and one filled with cash. Charlie seeks out work with the local butcher, buys a plot of land out by the river, and settles in.
Charlie remains something of an enigma throughout the book. He is 39 years old, athletic and graceful, skilled with his hands and his knives. He served in Europe in the war, but doing what exactly, we never find out. The only clue we get about his wartime experiences is that his butcher knives are German; we can only speculate as to where or how he acquired them.
Charlie doesn’t speak about his childhood or background except in vague generalities. Where did all that cash come from? We don’t know. Charlie is full of yearning, for a place, for land, for connections, and for goodness. Somehow along the way, Charlie lost his sense of hope, and so he set out traveling, looking for “something wonderful”. His new friend and employer Will tries to reset Charlie’s expectations:
Let me tell you something, son. When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand-new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go. Brownsburg ain’t heaven, by any means. But it’s perfectly fine. It’s all right.
Charlie seems to have found “all right” in Brownsburg. He earns the friendship of the townspeople, and is the adored companion of Will’s young son Sam. Charlie might even have been content at last, until he meets Sylvan Glass, a 17-year-old “hillbilly” girl, bought and paid for by the richest man in town, now a trophy wife who dreams of glamour and Hollywood. What follows is a year-long affair which consumes Charlie and disrupts the lives of everyone in town. Reading about Charlie and Sylvan, we know that something disastrous has been set in motion; I could only wait to see what shape the disaster would ultimately take.
A sense of foreboding hangs over the story from the outset. It’s clear that nothing good can come out of the affair. By the time I reached the half-way mark in the book, it became very difficult to put down, and I had to keep reading to see which way it would go. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say anything about the book’s climax, other than to say that events unfold that are at the same time tragic yet not unexpected.
At the conclusion, I was disturbed by the lack of overall coherence. Many plot elements that are compelling are introduced, but I didn’t see the follow-through. The black and white communities live completely separate lives in Brownsburg. Both Charlie and Sylvan develop relationships that reach out across the color lines, yet I didn’t feel that this part of the story particularly went anywhere. Concepts of sin and salvation are introduced as Charlie struggles to fit into the spiritual life of the community, but again, I didn’t feel the points were carried through as the plot unfolded.
Ultimately, dramatic as the story is, Heading Out To Wonderful left me a bit puzzled at the end, wondering about the point of it all. Robert Goolrick is a terrific and thoughtful writer – I loved his previous novel, A Reliable Wife, with its dark secrets and twisty-turny plot developments. Unfortunately, despite the lovely prose, Heading Out To Wonderful doesn’t quite deliver.