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.
Published by Algonquin Books, 2012