I was a big fan of Robert Goolrick’s novel, A Reliable Wife, but I turned the last page of his second novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, this morning with le sigh. And not a good sigh.
Brownsburg, Virginia, 1948 is the setting of Goolrick’s novel. It was
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 town comes Charlie Beale. He arrived in “a beat-up old pickup truck. On the seat beside him were two suitcases. One was thin cardboard and had seen a lot of wear and in it were all of Charlie Beale’s clothes and a set of butcher knives as sharp as razors.” The other suitcase is full of money.
Turns out that Charlie is not as dicey as he sounds, though. He quickly gets a job at the town butcher shop and soon ingratiated himself with the people of Brownsburg.
He cut the meat and charmed the ladies, one by one, but, more than charm, he treated every one, black and white, from the richest to the shoeless poorest, from dollars and dimes, with the same deference and shy kindness, and he won their hearts…
He makes good friends with Will, the man who owns the butcher shop, and Will’s wife, Alma, a school teacher. He becomes especially close to Will and Alma’s five-year-old son, Sam.
Charlie tells Will that he is ready to settle down, that he has been looking for “something wonderful.” Brownsburg, apparently, is it.
Or maybe the something wonderful is Sylvan. She’s the young wife of the town’s richest man, Boaty Glass. Sylvan is an uneducated girl who comes from the country (the reader will eventually find out how the repulsive Boaty landed such a beautiful wife) and dreams of being a movie star.
…she looked as though she had stepped into the shop from another part of the world…Her lips were a crimson slash, her hair pulled up in gleaming blonde waves on top of her head, held with tortoise-shell combs studded with rhinestones. Se wore dark sunglasses, a thing no other woman in town even thought to own, and espadrilles, tied with grosgrain ribbons around her ankles…
None of the other women speak to her, but Charlie can’t take her eyes off her and “she went off in his head and his heart like a firecracker.”
It is Charlie’s illicit relationship with Sylvan that makes up the bulk of the story. Sam, although only a child, plays a pivotal role.
Heading Out to Wonderful should work. I can’t quite figure out why it doesn’t. Perhaps it is because I never really felt like I understood either Charlie or Sylvan. The reader is never privy to Charlie’s past and so never clearly understands what motivates him. Where did all his money come from, for example? Why does he prefer to sleep outside on the ground?
Sylvan is, I think, something of a cold fish. Her only friend is Claudie, a black seamstress in town. Sure, I could chalk up her behavior to youth, but I just didn’t like her and so it was hard to root for the relationship between her and Charlie.
Goolrick is a great writer and for that reason, Heading Out to Wonderful was easy enough to read, but lots of things about this book irked me (Charlie’s younger brother turning up out of the blue, for example) and so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Loads of other people/critics loved it, though.