Can Tom McNeal write anything that doesn’t take your breath away? I’m beginning to think not.
McNeal is reminiscent of both Faulkner and Steinbeck in that he combines accounts of terrible evil (all the more horrifying because often aleatory) with glimmering moments of glad grace, both delivered in spare but elegant prose. Yet unlike the feeling of repugnance that I get with Faulkner and Steinbeck (even while respecting their art), in the case of McNeal’s writing, I come away from the reading experience feeling elevated. I find that I care even about characters who commit morally repugnant acts, because McNeal elucidates so well and so compassionately the inexorable forces that drive these characters, and the painful regret that threatens to drown them.
Under the guidance of McNeal’s pen, Goodnight, a fictional small town in Nebraska, turns from pine-scented and crisp and burning-leaf-smokiness in the fall, to cold and grim and white in the winter, to buttery-yellow and brilliant green and full of hope in the spring. Likewise, the clear-eyed people who live there switch from wary to cruel to forgiving, often moving from one to the other in the blink of an eye. McNeal records it all with pinpoint clarity, so that by the time you finish the book, the characters feel so real to you that you are astounded that you will not be meeting them again the next day. And you find yourself – crazily – wondering how they will be getting on this day, since you know you won’t be hearing from them.
Randall Hunsacker is 13 when we first meet him and in his mid-thirties when we leave him, but most of the story takes place when he is seventeen. He moved to Nebraska from Utah after a brief detention in a juvenile center, and now lives on his own, rooming with an old widow. He plays high school football with a ferocity not seen in Goodnight for many years, works at a garage after school, and late at night he conducts a surreptitious relationship with popular cheerleader Marcy Lockhardt. Marcy is smart and ambitious, but Randall has never been able to focus beyond the moment at hand.
There is a subtle, menacing undertow pulling apart the people in Randall’s life, fed by long winters, intrusive gossip, and stifled hopes and dreams. McNeal follows these characters, detailing just how hopelessness and frustration more often lead to violence or madness than to complacency. A “Deliverance”-type hunting trip taken by Randall some friends is the centerpiece of this shared internalization of the harshness and wildness of the endless Nebraska plain.
And what about the love that weaves through this story? This is where McNeal shines, because he seems to know love in all its manifestations, and is not opposed to sharing its secrets with us. As Marcy observes:
…there are some kinds of love, the ones we’re all after, that are meant for open air and natural light, but there are other kinds, too, more than we’d like to think, that come out of the dark and drag us away and tear parts from our bodies, kinds of love that work in their own dim rooms, and harbor more sad forms of intimacy and degradation and sustenance than those standing outside those rooms can ever dream of.”
Evaluation: Although this book is not related to McNeal’s later book, To Be Sung Underwater, I loved going back to this earlier one and seeing the ghostly outlines of his later characters Judith and Willy. Does it matter if you read them in or out of order? Not a bit: it just matters that you read them, because they are wonderful.
Update: Alas, commenters make a good point! Revised Rating: 4.5/5
Published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1998