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Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

 Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

I learned how to slaughter the animals, says Charlie Beal. Learned to walk up to them so they trusted me and they werent afraid.

The year is 1948, and the laconic, enigmatic Charlie has arrived 'in small-town Brownsburg, Virginia, carrying two bags. One is full of cash, and the other full of butchers knives. Taking a job with Will, the towns butcher, Charlie proves himself a deft hand at his work, and slowly acquaints himself with the manners and norms of this deeply conservative, strictly segregated small town.

The people here then, they believed in God and The Bookthe faith of their fathers passed through them mother to son, son to daughter and son, until it peopled the towns they made, recounts the books narrator, Wills son Sam, looking back over the years to tell the story of Charlies arrival and the grim events that followand in which Sam himself was horribly swept up.

Brownsburg is a superficially picturesque town, but beneath its veneer of civility is something startlingly mercurial. In a context where its standard practice to turn a blind eye or to avoid rocking the boat, the existence of seething undercurrents of despair and loathing can only be expected. All thats needed is an inciting event to set them bubbling to the surface. And Charlie Beals behaviour begins to depart from whats appropriate and moral, peeling away little bit little to begin with, and then recklessly so.

It starts when Charlie admits that hes not a church-goerin large part because he has not found a church that focuses more on the positive aspects of spirituality rather than the fire and brimstone side of things. Theres a suggestion, of course, that theres more to Charlies past than we ever learn as readers, and it seems that Charlies neighbours themselves have their qualms. Its Will and his wife who insist that Charlie attend church if only to keep up appearances. Charlie, however, missteps by attending the local black church, which ignites gossip all around.

Charlies misdemeanours dont end here, however. Upon meeting Sylvan Glass, the young, beautiful wife of the foul Boaty Glass, who has quite literally purchased her from her family, Charlie is smitten: Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face. Its soon evident that Sylvan and Charlie are carrying on an affair, but the townsfolks habit of unseeing the truth, along with the general dislike levelled at Boaty results in an effective code of silence. Even though Charlie has set about buying up vast tracts of land in Sylvans name, something which can be easily checked by anyone who cares to look, no one says anything of it, and so Charlie continues to quietly rail against the towns way of life, creating a disturbance that begins slowly but soon becomes difficult to ignore.

Its a sad thing to watch your best friend turn into somebody you dont know any more. Or even want to know. Still, youve got to pretend. Make the best of it, Will says early on in the book. He is speaking at the time of Boaty, but these same words can be just as aptly used to describe his relationship with Charlie. For Charlie grows ever-more self-destructive, and though we never learn what it is about his past that haunts him, theres a suggestion of violence and brutality that increasingly haunts the pages.

Charlie may be A better man than [Sylvan's] husband but he is nevertheless a man whose ownership of her consisted of giving her power over everything he had in this world, so that he had nothing, nothing at all except her. This sort of dependency is something that Charlie loathes.'He hated the way the dog looked at him with such pathetic faiththeres something about helplessness that makes us despise the helpless, we hear at one point, and we know that this deliberate ploy to give himself over to Sylvan is going to be his downfall:'its as though hes positioning himself beneath the guillotine. Charlie is like the dress that Sylvan loves, a dress that only revealed itself after the initial effect had come and goneas though the dress held a secret, and only told the secret when the time came.

And yet, for all the lurking darkness'and Charlies prophetic words about getting others to trust him utterly no matter the danger,'the final act seems difficult to reconcile with what we know of him. Its desperate and emotional and seems to go against the grain of the taciturn, if disturbed and amoral, man that we have come to know. In part its that the novel is told from the perspective of Wills son looking back on these events, an approach that creates unnecessary distance, but it also seems as though theres a need for a more explicit inciting act.

Theres a good deal to like here: Goolricks quiet, gentle prose serves up a good deal of darkness, and the elegant thematic echoes reverberate across the text in a way that means that much of the book works on several levels. However, the use of Sam as the narrator detracts from the books sense of veracity and immediacy, and some transitions, such as the beginning of Charlie and Sylvans affair, seem almost glossed over. The townships fickle reaction to Charlies behaviour seems odd, too, and though their vacillation between acceptance and rejection of him is certainly rather disturbing food for thought, it feels engineered rather than real. In all, though, this is an intriguing and layered read whose themes will be sure to divide readers.'

Rating: star Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrickstar Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrickstar Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrickblankstar Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrickblankstar Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick (good)

With thanks to Algonquin Books on Chapel Hill for the review copy

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Other books by Robert Goolrick

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  1. I did have some problems with it, but overall, I loved his ability to conjure up images. Beautiful writing. I didnt care for A Reliable Wife because I couldnt get invested with the characters.

    • Stephanie /

      I loved the writing style as well. It packs a lot of punch for such a quiet style. Sorry to hear you didnt care for A Reliable WifeIm curious about checking it out myself.