Review of “Heading Out to Wonderful” by Robert Goolrick

Think of how hard it is to reconstruct memories with only the written word: to convey mood and atmosphere; to paint, using only sentences strung together, the color and emotion and sheer force of human passions; to make a landscape come so alive that we can feel the frisson of cold water in a lake or the cruel avoidance of neighbors’ acknowledgments in the street; to enable us to feel lust and taste blood and understand what it is to do the unthinkable. This is precisely what Goolrick can do, like almost no one else.

This is a story with so many layers, that each time you think you know what it is about, another motif occurs to you. In that way – in its paradoxical combination of complexity and precision – it seems acutely real, making it both haunting and unforgettable.

Charlie Beale, age 39, comes to Brownsburg, Virginia in 1948 and decides he wants to settle there. He has searched around a lot; he is homesick for a place he has never been. Brownsburg is an insular community but Charlie loves the land and feels right there. He is a butcher by trade, and manages to convince the town’s one butcher, Will Haislett, that he would make a good assistant. Will’s whole family takes him in – his wife Alma helps Charlie get settled, and their five-year old son Sam, who inexplicably refers to Charlie as “Beebo” gets attached to Charlie like a second father. And Sam becomes for Charlie his fantasy son.

Charlie is working on his moral compass: he is striving for goodness, and he is looking for “something wonderful” in his life. Alma tells him people find the thing they expect to find, but it doesn’t work that way for Charlie. Alma insists he go to church to be accepted in the town, but the white preachers are fixated on shame and sin and hell. He is informed it is unacceptable to go to the small black church, even though he finds solace there in the joyfulness of the service. Thus, he cannot find a path to happiness in the white churches and he is prevented from finding it in the black church. Finally he gets undone by the only option he finds open to him: the worship of Sylvan Glass, the beautiful young wife of the local richest man in town.

Sylvan was literally purchased as a bride by the much-older and mean-spirited Harrison “Boaty” Glass, who “had wanted a glorious hood ornament for the car of his life.” Sylvan, from a hardscrabble family, had Hollywood dreams that transported her loveliness to what she thought was its rightful place. Whether she lived with Boaty or not didn’t interfere with her imagination.

When she and Charlie saw each other, however, there was an instant attraction. Charlie looked like a movie star to her, and to him, Sylvan looked like an angel; in her he saw the answer to his search for redemption. But for Sylvan, when Charlie went from the realm of fantasy to reality, the flesh and blood of his need was too unlike the celluloid visions that so mesmerized her. So she made a choice: … a choice that changed everything and everyone who paid the price for her immersion in illusions.

Discussion: It is interesting to me that this author arouses such vehement reactions. Whether it is with profound admiration or intense dislike, readers respond to his exposure of raw emotions and secret passions, and to his expression of the perhaps unwelcome message that desire, sex, love, want, and need are not always romantic and pretty, but sometimes just another form of violence. In this book, the author ups the stakes yet again, and adds religion to the forces of evil that can bring men down, turning Christian salvation into a death sentence.

There is a certain distance with which the author keeps us from the characters, and I think that is necessary. Even with the walls he erects, the pain we see acted out is so red and tender that letting us any closer could hardly be borne. As it is, Goolrick abrades the cocoon of our consciousness that protects us from the depth and breadth of the things that scare us. But they are the very same things that make us the most human. We are not gods; we are human beings, and there are few writers living today who can show that vulnerability like this author. Certainly, there are moments of “wonderful,” but through Goolrick we also gain an intimate familiarity with darkness; too intimate for some, but brilliantly done, nevertheless.

Evaluation: The author has said that this book is based on a story a friend told him thirty years ago; that it is, in its essential elements, a true story. But what Goolrick does is take this anecdote of a true event and turn it into universal truths about the human condition. It is a spellbinding story, and a spellbinding book.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2012

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22 Responses to Review of “Heading Out to Wonderful” by Robert Goolrick

  1. I haven’t read a bad review about this book yet. Sounds like a must read. glad u enjoyed it.

  2. Sandy says:

    You all are working on me. I absolutely HATED Reliable Wife. To the point where, despite his writing and sense of place, I swore I’d never pick up his work again. And you know, I don’t have to have clean, pure happy sex in my books, and I don’t have to like the characters. I loved Gone Girl! But Reliable Wife made me feel skeezy and slimy and I couldn’t finish it fast enough. But you all are doing a number on this one. Gorgeous review.

  3. Caroline says:

    Now this sounds extremely interesting.What you write about his writing and how expressive it is as much as the different reactions.
    I find authors who provoke aversion and admiration at the same time do something important. They must touch subjects which make us feel uncomfortable.

  4. I cannot wait to read this book. I loved A Reliable Wife and acted like a complete fangirl at a book fair in Virginia recently when I met Goolrick. This is a wonderful review and you captured the polarization his work creates in readers – you either love him or you hate him. I absolutely love him, can’t wait to get a copy of this one.

  5. Care says:

    Putting on my tbr right now. Sounds like my kind of book. I have A Reliable Wife but have yet to read it but I am more now than ever excited to read this author.

  6. Barbara says:

    This review is so beautifully written it gives me goosebumps! I haven’t read this author but your review is insightful, descriptive, and thought provoking. Lovely writing, Jill.

  7. Oh wow, I really want to read this now. But first, I still need to read A Reliable Wife – it has been on my shelves for far too long!

  8. Ti says:

    And I, unlike my dear pal Sandy, LOVED Reliable Wife. I really want to read this. I enjoy authors who manage to push my buttons by taking risks. He marches to his own drum and I know it’s hit or miss as some readers cannot stand his style of writing but what can I say, it works for me!

  9. I have this book and A Reliable Wife but haven’t read them yet. You’ve certainly made me excited about this book.

    “This is a story with so many layers, that each time you think you know what it is about, another motif occurs to you.” Ooh, I can’t wait!!

  10. Jenners says:

    Your opening paragraph is so well done. I haven’t yet read anything by him but you’re making me want to.

  11. I have yet to read anything by Goolrick. You’ve made me think that I need to change that.

  12. BermudaOnion says:

    Wow! You’ve made this book sound amazing! I want to drop everything and read it right now.

  13. “this author arouses such vehement reactions”…since I am not familiar with his work, I will have to take your word for it. But such a great review peaks my interest!

  14. softdrink says:

    I’m going to have to read this, aren’t I?

  15. Gaye says:

    Wowee, with reviews this exquisitely written I may not even need to read the book!! Your reviews are so well composed and delivered, you knock me off my little feet. Thanks for exposure to another treasure. I’m off to The Gathering now!

  16. jennala9 says:

    I think I’m intimidated by this man’s books! I haven’t read A Reliable Wife but remember hearing mixed things. This book sounds intense!

  17. bookingmama says:

    WOW!!! Can’t wait for this one!

  18. sagustocox says:

    Your review makes me want to read this. I got it in the mail unrequested, but I’m going to give it serious thought.

  19. Trish says:

    I caught some of the litchat on twitter today and am really interested in this one now! But it does sound like one that will take a bit of concentration and heavy thinking.

  20. I absolutely LOVED his first book and have been chomping at the bit to get my hands on this one! Your review was so wonderful to read and I can’t wait to be under this author’s spell once again!

  21. stacybuckeye says:

    What a beautiful review. Seems like he inspired you 🙂

  22. litandlife says:

    I’m one of those who really liked A Reliable Wife so this one is definitely going on my “read it sooner rather than later” list.

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