Robert Goolrick’s first novel, “A Reliable Wife,” was a delightful surprise when it was published in 2009. The tale, a sort of early 20th-century Midwestern noir, was a love triangle set in northern Wisconsin and St. Louis. It featured a woman with a mysterious background trying to re-create herself, a good but flawed man, and a fellow who is dark and brooding and, perhaps, capable of serious violence. It’s a ripping good yarn.
Goolrick’s new book, “Heading Out to Wonderful,” sets in motion another love triangle. This time the novel begins in 1948 in the tiny hamlet of Brownsburg, Va. (population: 538), the sort of town “where no crime had ever been committed,” and “there weren’t any stoplights. . . . The people here then, they believed in God and The Book.”
Enter 39-year-old Charlie Beale, who appears in town “out of nowhere,” a stranger with two suitcases. One has “a set of butcher knives, sharp as razors.” The other “was filled with money. A lot of money. Charlie wore the key to the lock on a chain around his throat.”
Charlie’s a butcher, and a good one. The existing butcher hires him and befriends him. Soon the butcher’s 5-year-old son, Sam, reveres him, and Charlie becomes like a second father to the lad. Enter Sylvan Glass, the young wife of the loathsome, morbidly obese Boaty Glass — the richest man in Brownsburg. Boaty has literally bought Sylvan from her father, a hardscrabble farmer outside of town, and made her his wife.
But Boaty has gotten more than he paid for. Sylvan turns out to be no dumb hillbilly. Through the radio and movies, she reinvents herself and soon looks more than a bit like a Hollywood siren. When Charlie first sees her, he is smitten, and they begin a torrid affair, using young Sam as their cover. On Wednesdays, when Sam is supposed to be keeping Charlie company on the weekly ride to the slaughterhouse, the boy is actually reading comic books at Sylvan and Boaty’s kitchen table, while upstairs Sylvan and Charlie make their strange and secret noises in the bedroom.
It’s clear that no good will come from this dalliance, especially given the persistent echoes of “The Great Gatsby” that waft through the novel.
Nevertheless, “Heading Out to Wonderful” is not as assured as “A Reliable Wife.” The novel is narrated by Sam, now an older man looking back on his friendship with Charlie and what he witnessed as a boy, yet the novel is written largely in the third person. “This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I’m going to tell it to you,” Sam tells the reader on the first page, but then for lengthy sections proceeds to refer to “Sam” and “the boy” as if there’s an omniscient narrator.
Moreover, rather than hiding a structural weakness in the novel, the use of the third person illuminates it: Critical moments — and lots of them — occur when Sam is not present and involve characters who would not (or could not) have told him the story. Among the most obvious scenes are when Boaty negotiates with Sylvan’s father to buy her, and the newlyweds’ first moments of intimacy in Boaty’s bedroom; or when Sylvan meets an African American seamstress and retains her to create her movie star frocks.
In addition, the motivations of the secondary characters seem implausibly mercurial — driven more by the needs of the novelist than by likely behavior. Charlie saves young Sam’s life after the boy has nearly drowned in front of most of the town, and Sam tells us, “Charlie Beale walked on water in their eyes, and he could do no wrong. Everybody, man, woman, and child in Brownsburg, loved Charlie Beale.” And yet 13 pages later, after Charlie has been accused of a vicious crime nobody really believes he committed, just about everybody in Brownsburg “shut their doors and [closed] their hearts to Charlie Beale. . . . Their hearts, always soft for Charlie, turned hard and bitter.”
And when a stranger enters a novel by driving into a sleepy town with two suitcases, one filled with enough cash to buy huge parcels of real estate and the other with lots of sharp knives, we’re entitled to a little back story. Goolrick explains the knives, but never the money. And that’s a disappointment.
Still, Goolrick is a writer with a big heart and a deft hand for drama. I look forward to whatever he pens next.
Bohjalian is the author of 15 books. His next novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” will be published in July.
HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL
By Robert Goolrick
292 pp. $24.95