When I read Robert Goolrick's novel A Reliable Wife, I fell quite madly in love with Ralph Truitt. He was a man with a lot of flaws and in many ways not very likable but over the course of the story he won me over and by the time it ended I was in love. When I saw that Goolrick had a new novel I wanted to read it but was, at the same time, afraid I would be disappointed—I need not have worried.
Set in the Shanandoah Valley of Virginia in 1948, Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of Charlie Beale, a handsome young man, who has drifted since the end of the World War II looking for a place to call home. He finds it in Brownsburg, a small town filled with friendly, charming people. Charlie finds work as a butcher in a small store, makes friends with the owners of the store, especially their little son, Sam, buys house and a dog and settles happily into small town life. As a writer Goolrick's powers of description of the town and the people in it are so winning that I fell in love with all of them just as Charlie did.
But, of course, trouble is on the way and arrives in the form of the very beautiful teenage wife of the town's richest man “Boaty” Glass. Sylvan Glass is both beautiful and pathetic. She is a dreamer with a head full of movie stars and day dreams who was purchased from a deep country family by the unscrupulous Boaty. She has accepted her lot in life and is content with it as long as Boaty does not object to the amount of time she spends at the movies and the amount of money she spends on clothes copied from them. Her only friend is Cicely, the town's most gifted seamstress, and some of the most lovely writing in the book is about Cicely's love for and mastery of her craft. And then Sylvan sees Charlie—and Charlie sees Sylvan—and no good can come of this.
One of the things I love about both Ralph, in A Reliable Wife, and Charlie in this book, is that they are men who fell madly, deeply, irrevocably in love. Goolrick has an absolute genius for writing about men in love in such a way that, as a woman, I cannot help but love those characters for being so nakedly vulnerable and so hopelessly lost in love. This is not a story with a happy ending. It is a story of people who some might say made bad choices but to them they had no choice, they did what they believed they had to do—and following that path leads to inevitable pain.
This is also something of a morality tale but not in the traditional sense. For a long time the people of the town turn a blind eye—even an approving blind eye—to the relationship between Charlie and Sylvan. But when things go wrong and the Christian preachers call down fire and brimstone on anyone who fails to properly condemn the ill-fated lovers, all those good people turn their backs rather than risk the disapproval of their neighbors. It is sad and, in a perverse way, the judgment levied on Charlie by his former friends, leads to the ultimate tragedy.
Robert Goolick is an exceptional writer with a deep and visceral understanding of human frailty. He creates characters that are deeply flawed and deeply touching at the same time. He appreciates the subtlety and nuance of country people and he paints pictures with words that linger in memory. I think this book may be hard for some people—nothing is tied up neatly with a bow. But there is great beauty in truth and Goolrick's characters ring true.
Thanks for reading.