Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful

I admit up front that I was not a huge fan of Robert Goolrick's previous novel The Reliable Wife, so I was a little reluctant to pick up his new one called Heading Out to Wonderful.  Luckily I had a little prompting from Craig "Call me Peaches" Popelars at Algonquin, who told me that he thought I'd love it. As usual, he was right. Damn his eyes.

If you read enough books or watch enough movies, after a while you develop certain expectations built into certain plot points. Thus, in chapter one when a mysterious drifter rolls into a small Southern town with nothing but his truck and two suitcases, and when those two suitcases are filled with nothing but cash and a set of the sharpest butcher knives anyone has ever seen, you know that by the last chapter there's no way that everything can end well.  Just a fact of fictional life.

That's essentially what happens in Goolrick's book, but he does stand certain of the reader's expectations on their heads, and that's what makes for an intense but heartfelt read.  You know something bad is going to happen, but it's not precisely clear at first just what path the badness is going to take: will somebody end up butchered & barbecued, a la Fried Green Tomatoes? Will the evil spring from the handsome stranger, or will it be exacted upon him by the small, xenophobic town? Is the handsome stranger's intense relationship with the young boy more insidious than it appears on the surface or is it completely innocent?

Add in a curious five year-old narrator, a small town full of busybodies, a racial divide, old time religion, a near-death resuscitation, and a man who's so rich and so mean, he has to buy himself a pretty young mountain girl for a wife, and you've got the makings of a pretty great story. 

The opening paragraphs are some of the best meditations on memory that I have ever read. The book is narrated by Sam, who is an old man looking back on what happened when the drifter came to town and his family took him in:

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.

This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I'm going to tell it to you.  It's a true story, as much as six decades of remembering and telling can allow it to be true. Time changes things, and you don't always get everything right. You remember a little thing clear as a bell...while other things, big things even, come completely disconnected and no longer have any shape or sound. The little things seem more real than some of the big things....I'm  not young any more, so sometimes I can't tell what things are the things I remember and what things are just things that other people told me They tell me things I did, and a lot of them I don't remember, but most people around here aren't liars, so I just go on and believe them, until it seems that I actually do remember the things they say.

This is not exactly a Southern gothic tale, though  it has elements of that.  Mostly it's the story of quiet people after the war, who are on the cusp of modernity and who know their simple, seemingly charmed way of life won't last forever.  It's the story of otherwise good people who choose to let evil into their hearts, and the blinding love of a small boy for a man he calls Beebo, who instinctively knows something about protection but is too innocent to understand what happens around him. I highly recommend it. I've already passed my reading copy on to my husband and he's barely spoken to me since--that's how involved he is with it. 


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