Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful

Heading Out to Wonderful, by Robert Goolrick, is a tale of forbidden love and its consequences. Set in rural Virginia circa 1948, it recounts the story of Charlie Beale, a mysterious stranger who walks into town with two suitcases: one filled with cash and the other containing a fine set of butcher knives. He secures a job in the butcher shop and soon meets a cast of local characters, including the richest, meanest man in the town and his teenage bride. He falls passionately in love with her movie star image. As time passes, Charlie befriends the shopkeeper's family, including their son, Sam.  Sam is only 4 years old when the story begins. We learn from the opening line that it is Sam, now in his 60s, who is our sympathetic narrator.

The thing is, all memory is fiction...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, these things seem to happen to other people. (p. 1)

Many themes of the book reflect the life of the author. This is graphically depicted in his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It (2007). As Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes: "It follows the senior Goolricks from high times to low ones, when 'my mother and father went on until they didn’t care enough to read or dress or cut their own toenails or defend themselves against alcoholism and cancer and filthiness and disrepair and rats in the house.'” (New York Times, March 26, 2007)  But what damaged him for a lifetime occurred when he was 4 years old. Maslin writes that it is described by Goolrick in pornographic detail. The child abuse, coupled with his general home life, led to a troubled youth and adulthood. As a child, he set his grandmother's curtains on fire. As a teenager, he roamed the streets inebriated and high on cocaine.  He began a life-long struggle with self-mutilation. He had affairs with men and women.

If events in Heading Out to Wonderful appear melodramatic, they pale next to those of his real life. Charlie Beale is sympathetic and tormented--a lonely soul who befriends a child and ultimately betrays his innocence.  Throughout the book, Charlie seeks salavation for a past not disclosed. He visits many churches but, in the end, worships at the feet of a woman.

Goolrick, perhaps through the voice of the book's narrator, Sam, tries to understand how he ended up living alone with nothing but ghosts from the past. Along the way, he exposes the bigotry of small town life before civil rights and captures the degradation of being black in the rural South. Indeed, the most decent characters in his novel are the African Americans Goolrick depicts.

Heading Out to Wonderful is a thought-provoking period piece that highlights the fragility of childhood and the difficulties of existence. It is a cautionary ballad well worth reading.

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