Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Published by: Algonquin Books
Published on: June 12, 2012
Page Count: 304
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Reading Format: Hardcover review copy signed by the author at BEA
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook
Giveaway: The publisher had previously sent me a review copy of Heading Out To Wonderful. I love this book so much, I must share it. Please leave a comment before 11:59pm EST on Monday, June 25 for a chance to win. I will choose the winner using Random.org.
Charlie Beale enters the small town of Brownsburg, VA during the summer of 1948 with two suitcases. One holds his worldly possessions, including a fine set of butcher’s knives. The second is full of money. He is unsure where he wants to settle down, so he pays a man to park his car by the river and sleep at night while he explores the town. No one knows who he is or where he came from. Still, once he chooses Brownsburg, he is accepted. He is a fine butcher and is hired by middle-aged Will Haislett, the owner of the local butcher shop. Sam, Will’s only child and 5-year-old son, takes a shine to Charlie and Charlie to him. Alma, Will’s wife, takes it upon herself to get Charlie settled into a proper house and to see that he at least tries to attend church. Just as Browsburg has entered Charlie’s heart, he’s entered the heart of the Haislett family. They might have all lived out the rest of their lives contentedly that way had Sylvan, the teenage trophy wife of the town’s wealthiest man, Boaty Glass, had never entered the butcher shop.
The beginnings of Charlie and Sam’s friendship were so heartwarming. Even though Charlie was in his 30s, he was a loner and Sam filled a place in his heart that shouldn’t have been empty. After he buys his house and moves in, Charlie buys a dog because he knows that Sam wants one so badly. Together, they name the dog Jackie Robinson. Charlie is the perfect role model for Sam until one Wednesday night when, while the two are normally out of town together buying and preparing fresh cuts of meat for the shop, Charlie stops at home of Boaty Glass and begins his affair with Sylvan. He leaves Sam and Jackie Robinson in the car and later makes the boy promise not to tell a soul, not even his parents, about what had happened. This irresponsible act made in a whirlwind of passion for a girl obsessed with the drama of Hollywood changes the lives of all involved. Sam is too young to understand what is going on around him and has no one he can talk to about it. Even when confronted with the evidence of how much these secret meetings are hurting the boy, Charlie cannot not stop. He simply does not see clearly how his relationship with Sylvan is compromising everything – his work, his financial decisions, or his sacred trust with a boy he dearly loves.
Sylvan’s life, while not perfect by any stretch, has a glamorous quality. Boaty may be a grossly obese old man who literally bought her from her parents because no other woman would have him despite his fortune, but he took her to Hollywood on their honeymoon. She wears her dark sunglasses wherever she goes and she lives in the movies inside of her head. Even before Boaty, she lived outside of her sheltered life in a town even more rural than Brownsburg via radio drama. Just as adulthood is a logical progression from childhood, Sylvan’s life simply matured into movies when she left home. When she meets Claudie, the town’s seamstress who, had she not been African American, would have been a New York fashion designer, Sylvan’s inner and physical world unite. When strong, handsome Charlie enters the picture and knows how to use his body to pleasure hers, how can her life not be magical?
Robert Goolrick knocked me out of a huge reading slump with A Reliable Wife. With Heading Out to Wonderful, he secured a place as one of my favorite modern authors. His writing is magnificent. From the opening paragraph, I knew I was going to get lost in this book.
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. (page 3)
There are sections of this novel that read like a love letter to Virginia. I live nearby Rockbridge County, where Heading Out to Wonderful is set. Reading those passages opened my eyes to my surroundings in a new way. I also loved the way he wrote his characters. Claudie wasn’t just the town’s African American genius seamstress, she was brave, bold and essential. Sam was especially well crafted. He loves Charlie and keeps his secrets, but he knows he’s lying to his parents. Lying is a grave sin and he becomes tainted in his own eyes. While Charlie is a good man, through his selfishness he steals this boy’s innocence and there is nothing he can do to replace it.
Within the heartbreak of this story, there is joy and beauty. Charlie went all out for Sam’s 6th birthday and, when Sam left for the party and the title of the book was brought in, it gave me chills. His present to Charlie captured my imagination completely. In a year when so many of the books I’ve read have been lovely and memorable, Heading Out to Wonderful is my favorite. I could not possibly recommend it or any other book more highly.