On the one hand: Robert Goolrick wrote A Reliable Wife which I really enjoyed. On the other hand: Heading Out to Wonderful is about a doomed love affair in rural Virginia in 1948. The doomed love affair is one of my least favorite plot lines. Call me unromantic, but the thunderclap of passion has always seemed like a terrible contrivance to me, and “doomed” never makes me happy. What’s more, mid-century in the rural South? Umm, I’ll pass.
But let me tell you, this is a wonderful novel. Once again, we see that any story can be gripping when the right person is telling it, and telling it in the right way. (Anybody read a good book about Thomas Cromwell lately?) Robert Goolrick uses a simple prose style that is half-lyrical and half-conversational: “You remember a little thing clear as a bell, the weather, say, or the splash of light on the river’s ripples as the sun was going down into the black pines…” Maybe it’s the rhythm that carries these sentences along, a kind of rocking like being on horseback. It feels like my idea of Southern story-telling. Goolrick’s narrator, we come to realize, is six-year-old Sam Haislett, and the stranger who comes to Brownsburg, Virginia is Charlie Beale, a handsome enigma with a suitcase of cash and a set of razor-sharp butcher knives.
Charlie is quiet but magnetic, a wonderful butcher and a brilliant athlete. Soon he has a job with Will Haislett, the town butcher; he buys a house and a patch of land down by the river. He seems ready to settle in this quiet little town which he hoped “would be the place he could feel at home.” There’s an interesting point right here: though Sam narrates, Goolrick slides in and out of other characters’ points of view as well, so adroitly that we never think to wonder how Sam could have this information. In fact, he sets up quite early a other-worldly quality to the narrative, referring to his story as “the talk and the myth, I don’t know what else you’d call it.” As I leaf through the early pages of the book, I realize it’s no accident that Sam’s mother Alma is a Latin teacher who “taught the stories of the wars and the gods.” There’s something larger than life about Charlie Beale. And as for the lady in the tale, Sylvan Glass, she is also somewhat mythic, a young girl from a mountain hollow, literally purchased by her crass husband. Sylvan (a name she chose for herself) might even be a figment of Charlie’s imagination, so inhuman does she seem. Until the end.
Oh, bad things head toward Charlie and all the characters, we know that from the start. We stay with the tale out of affection and curiosity and because Goolrick won’t let us go. We want to linger in the setting, this idyllic chunk of a past that we know couldn’t really have existed, and this idyllic Virginia valley that holds all the characters close, forms them and nurtures them. And that eventually turns even the horrors into stories, which seems like the best way to handle them. Specially if Robert Goolrick is doing the telling.