Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

In spite of the title, this is not a "Once upon a Time.....happily ever after" fairy tale. Seldom does a book leave me speechless, but when I reluctantly closed this one I was stunned, without words and almost unable to breath.  It's slow, measured, every word carefully chosen to craft a story of a small town, of quiet ordinary people trying to live moral lives, of ingrained prejudices and  lack of education, of Bible thumping preachers and butchers, and seamstresses and secrets and dreams.  It's a story about morals, ethics, cause and effect, truth and consequences.

Goolrick tells us the story mostly through the eyes of an old man who reflects back on his town Brownsburg, a town "where no crime had ever been committed... where the terrible American wanting hadn't touched yet, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn't have."  He tells us of an ill-fated illicit love affair between a strong minded and introverted young man Charlie, and the Hollywood obsessed beautiful young wife of the town bully.  As their affair develops, they unwittingly involve Sam, the six year old young son of the town butcher, swearing him to secrecy.  Sam has hero-worshipped Charlie from the day he arrived to work in his father's butcher shop and even now, sixty years later, still seems to be putting together the pieces of what happened as he relates the story.

There are really two stories here.  The author unfolds each slowly tantalizing the reader with possibilities. Charlie's story, which is ultimately Sam's story, is told alongside the life and dreams of Sylvan Glass, a young woman sold into marriage when she was sixteen by a father who wanted security for the rest of his family to to the town bully, a man who wanted a trophy.  Once Sylvan walks into the butcher shop, dressed in movie star finery, and once Charlie sees her, the illicit relationship marches inexorably to a conclusion worthy of the movies Sylvan is so in love with.

Goolrick's prose is spare but poetic; it paints a vivid picture of a seemingly idyllic life resting on secrets, immune to modernity, and destined to hold the reader's attention from beginning to end. To more about the plot or the characters wrapped into it would be to spoil one of the best reading experiences available today. I haven't read Goolrick's earlier work but he is certainly going onto my list of authors to search out.

This is one of over 25 books chosen by our Maine Reader's Choice Award panel for the long list for this year's award.  I read and listened to this in tandem because I could not stop reading.  Norman Dietz has the perfect voice and inflection to tell this story in audio.  With writing this spectacular, he had an exciting script to work with.  Whatever format or medium you choose, this is a must read.

Title: Heading Out to Wonderful
Author: Robert Goolrick
Publisher: Algonquin Books (2012) 1st edition; 320 pages
Audio Publisher: Highbridge Audio, 9:27
Narrator: Norman Dietz
Genre: literary fiction
Subject: small town relationships
Setting: Appalachian Virginia, 1948-49
Source: print: publisher furnished;  audio: Overdrive download
Why did I read this book now? I'm a panelist for the Maine Peoples Choice awards, and this is on the long list.


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