If I told you what happens in Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, in the simplest of terms, the story would seem melodramatic. Ludicrous even. And yet, it doesn’t read this way at all – Goolrick’s steady, almost detached style takes it in another direction altogether.
The story is set in 1948 in the small, sleepy town of Brownsburg, Virginia. Bachelor Charlie Beale arrives in town with two suitcases: one contains a set of butcher knives; the other is full of money. Charlie decides to stay in Brownsburg.
The story is deceptively simple – an affair gone terribly wrong – however Goolrick uses the setting, with its petty small town attitudes (on race, religion and the meaning of success) and the telling of the story from the perspective of five-year-old Sam to create suspense –
“…it made him feel both curious and lonely. Something had happened and he had been both a part of it and shut out of it completely, and it disturbed him and roiled his sleep. And he could not ask or tell. That much he knew. Yes. Childhood is the most dangerous place of all. If we had to live there forever, we wouldn’t live very long.”
Heading Out to Wonderful relies heavily on Hollywood as a theme, both literally and figuratively – the real and the make-believe; the promise of a fairy tale ending; the need to act the part. And while a murder, a near-drowning, two suicides, the ‘purchase’ of a wife, a ‘bubblegum tree’ and a ‘field of dreams’ may seem far-fetched for this slim story, Goolrick’s restrained prose keeps it firmly in the realm of believable. Apparently Goolrick was a copywriter for over 30 years – obviously a good one because his economy of words in the face of so much drama makes for compelling reading.
“The thing is, all memory is fiction. You have to remember that. Of course, there are things that actually, certifiably happened, things where you can pinpoint the day, the hour, and the minute. When you think about it, though, those things mostly seem to happen to other people.”
There are a few problems with the book, notably with the narrator (Sam telling parts of the story that he was clearly not present for) but not enough to detract.
3.5/5 I will certainly seek out more Goolrick, particularly his memoir which I think will shed light on Wonderful’s vulnerable Sam.
I received my copy of Heading Out to Wonderful from the publisher, Random House UK/ Cornerstone via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.