Heading Out to Wonderful (Algonquin) is exactly that. Wonderful. That is, it’s filled with wonder. Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife, has once again dug beneath the surface of lives, unearthing mystery and motive that, when combined, drive this impressive, hypnotic tale relentlessly forward.
The year is 1948, in a gorgeous Virginia valley. Charlie Beale comes to town with two suitcases, one filled with cash, the other with knives. Slowly, with patience and an understanding of how small towns work, Charlie weaves his way into the lives of the town folk. He leads a quiet life, causing few if any ripples, but still touching lives every day, most notably Sam, the young son of his employer, and Sylvan, a young bride who’s determined to live more a Hollywood life than that of a small town. These three characters, each an opposite of the others, come together in an explosive tale that seems part fairy, part cautionary. But no matter how you read it, it’s gorgeous.
Goolrick teases out the details of Charlie Beale using these two others: Sylvan helps us see Charlie as a man of desire, generosity, and ultimately helplessness. Sam teases out Charlie’s protective side, his childlike side, his spirituality. In a sense, Sam is what Charlie’s life is, and Sylvan is what Charlie wants his life to be.
Apart from Charlie, Sylvan, and Sam, Goolrick has populated Heading Out to Wonderful with a full cast of characters and their full range of fears and hopes and dreams. By setting the tale when he does, before television, certainly before the Internet, as well as off the beaten path, Goolrick has isolated these people. They don’t just live in town — they are the town. So much so that even the smallest change in who they are, in how they act and interact, changes the town itself. The climax, which seems inevitable, still comes as a shock, hitting a whole fistful of nerves at once. I found myself wondering how one can head out for wonderful with such wide eyes, such a depth of innocence, and still manage to strike head-on the darkness that life seems to hand out in such abundance. ◊