Robert Goolrick’s second novel, Heading Out To Wonderful, is based on a true story he heard while visiting a Greek isle decades ago. He learned of the tragic tale of a stranger arriving in a small town and becoming involved in an obsessive love affair with another man’s wife. The account—as Robert Goolrick heard it—ended violently.
Heading Out To Wonderful is as delicious as I expected. The day it arrived by express mail, I tore the packaging open and started reading. How could I not? The first sentence: “The thing is, all memory is fiction
In his work of literary fiction, Goolrick sets the stage in the small town of Brownsburg, Virginia (population: 538) in 1948. No crime has ever been committed there.
Charlie Beale, age thirty-nine, arrives in town from out-of-nowhere in his old beat-up pick-up truck and has two suitcases with him. One contains his clothing plus a set of five German-made meat cutting knives. The other suitcase holds a significant amount of cash.
The first week Charlie’s in town he walks around and becomes familiar with the county. He’s polite to everyone, tipping his hat as he goes about his business. He pays a dollar a night to sleep out by the river. Charlie likes the freedom of sleeping under the stars. His needs are simple.
. . .Pg13[After one week, Charlie Beale started doing things. He got up with the first light, a sliver of moon still in the sky, and shaved in the rearview mirror of his truck. He put on a clean white shirt, and he went and sat with Russell Hostetter at the breakfast table and arranged to buy fifty acres of river land out where his truck was parked.]
Charlie doesn’t care he can’t grow anything in the ground and that it’s part of a flood plain. He doesn’t plan to build on the property. He wants to call it his own.
The following week, Charlie approaches Will Haslett, the town butcher, for a job. Will doesn’t need help, at least he doesn’t think he does. He hires Charlie anyway.
Charlie meets Will’s son Sam and instantly forms a bond. Sam calls Charlie Beebo and does so throughout the remainder of the novel. Charlie’s almost a second father to five-year old Sam.
Business is brisk at the market. Everyone in Brownsburg wants to meet the new man at the butcher shop. The very shop where Charlie told Will that he’d work free for a month and then, if Will hadn’t made more money with having him as an employee, Charlie would leave with no hard feelings.
Wills owns the store, but Charlie is better in every way when it come to running the butcher shop. Charlie knows how to get the most cuts from a freshly slaughtered animal. He also knows how to cut the meat in such a way that it brings out the juices and tenderness the townsfolk had never before savored.
Before Charlie started working at the butcher shop, women didn’t come in as often. Now, most of the town’s women come in every day and they buy more from Charlie than they had purchased in the past. Sometimes they shop for meat twice a day, once for lunch and again for dinner. Will tells Charlie most of the women have electric refrigerators and used to buy their meat for several days. Will smiles and takes the extra money he’s making to the bank, all because the women want to interact with Charlie Beale.
One man comes in every day, a fat man Will calls Boaty. Charlie isn’t sure of his age but he knows Boaty Glass gets the best, and he doesn’t pay. Will writes his purchases in a book.
One day after Boaty left the shop, Will tells Charlie, . . . Pg35[“It’s a sad thing to watch your best friend turn into somebody you don’t know any more. Or even want to know. Still, you’ve got to pretend. Make the best of it. The thing about small towns is, you live with these people, see them every day. No point in fighting. Everybody is always just there, every day, so you’ve got to make your peace. And he spends good money. Still. Sad.] . . .
Boaty’s wife, Sylvan, cares more about movie stars, how they live their lives, the clothes they wear, and their romances than she does anything else. A local seamstress makes Sylvan knockoff creations of dresses she sees in Hollywood magazines and at the movies. She has both the body and the attitude to indulge her fashion statements.
The story moves forward with small town activities and Charlie continues to acquire acreage. He also purchases his own house in town. The butcher’s wife, Alma, finds pleasure in decorating Charlie’s home.
The characters the reader meets along the way are all obsessed with one thing or another. They’ve lived in Brownsburg from the time they were born and will be there until they die. Few secrets exist.
Will’s son, Sam, is one of the most important characters in Heading Out To Wonderful. The boy is front and center throughout the novel. Goolrick speaks openly of his own childhood and Sam comes alive initially with innocence and later with an injustice he should never have been asked to carry.
. . .Pg111[Charlie had never seen the charm of children, he had thought it was continuance he sought when he dreamed of his child, not companionship . . . Charlie had been a prisoner of his own childhood, he had never really stopped being a child himself. He found he could talk to Sam easily, and tell him everything about where he’d been and the people he’d known, knowing Sam would never pass on the information.]. . .
Sam accompanies Charlie when he makes his weekly trips to the slaughterhouse. The first time Sam goes with Charlie, Sam points out the house where Sylvan lives.
On a trip home from the slaughterhouse one Wednesday, Charlie and Sam stop at Sylvan’s house. Charlie knows it’s not a good idea. He’s obsessed with Sylvan and she’d opened the gate.
. . . Pg117[He turned to the boy. “Wait here, Sam, Okay? Don’t get out of the truck. Just talk to Jackie (Charlie’s dog) and wait. I’m going to go in that house and talk to Mrs. Glass for a while. I won’t be long.” He pulled a pack of wintergreen Life Savers out of his pocket and gave it to Sam, knowing his parent’s didn’t allow it.] . . .
. . . Pg120[Childhood is the most dangerous place of all. If we had to live there forever, we wouldn’t live very long.] . . .
Beginning with the first Wednesday Charlie stops at Sylvan’s house, Sam loses his childhood. Sam officially enters the adult world when Charlie asks him to keep the stop at Sylvan’s house a secret and to not tell anyone, not even his parents.
Charlie buys a house and gives the deed to Sylvan for her birthday. It’s the first thing she has ever owned and she and Charlie go there every chance they get . . . Pg161[It was always quick, and it was never enough, but it was all they had, and, for a while, all they needed.]. . .
But an obsession always leads to wanting more of that which is forbidden. The crescendo of inappropriate behaviors by Sylvan and Charlie can not last forever. Charlie becomes so wrapped up in his individual drama with Sylvan that he no longer cares about anyone else. For Sylvan, Charlie represents her Clark Gabel. Their moods and emotions are intense and above all, explosive.
Charlie believes if he gives Sylvan more and more of his land holdings, she’ll eventually leave Boaty. But Charlie isn’t privy to the arrangements agreed upon when Boaty purchased Sylvan from her redneck father. Charlie gives Sylvan the deeds to all the land he owns. He keeps the house in town for himself. He’s no longer a wealthy man. He doesn’t understand why Sylvan won’t leave. They are good together, aren’t they?
. . . Pg201[He (Charlie) never meant to harm. He had meant never to hurt another living thing. And perhaps the boy was not hurt, he thought, perhaps, but he knew better.] . . .
Sam is no longer the obedient child and becomes impossible to control. He fights with other children without provocation. He’s no longer loving to animals and now causes them fear. This sweet boy, once loving and kind, becomes cold and hateful from spending endless hours around Charlie and Sylvan.
Charlie becomes fearful of what he might be responsible for turning Sam into, but he needs Sam to keep his secret. Charlie begins planning Sam’s sixth birthday party. Charlie’s determined it’ll be the biggest and best birthday party any six-year-old has ever had and everyone in town is invited.
There’s live music, lots of food, magic tricks, and a clown. Charlie includes Sam in the preparations of the party. They have fun as they did in the days before Sylvan. There are balloons and streamers and fun stuff Sam’s never seen before.
The day of the party arrives. The weather is beautiful out by the river where Charlie slept when he first came to town and his needs were simpler. The place where he found contentment in the days before Sylvan Glass, wife of the most powerful and most despised man in town. Charlie’s determined the birthday party will set right all that is wrong with the world. This is the location for Sam’s party.
The townsfolk enjoy the food and activities as much as the children. They can’t remember the last time they danced to live music. The children play games; Sam gets too close to the river and falls in. Charlie dives into the river’s swift current and pulls the small boy to safety.
Sylvan continues her affair with Hollywood. Boaty Glass is one of the most evil, tormented characters I’ve met. Will sums up life in Brownsburg, Virginia, for Charlie . . .Pg16[“Let me tell you something, son. When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand-new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go. Brownsburg ain’t heaven, by any means. But it’s perfectly fine. It’s all right.”]. . .
Heading Out To Wonderful by Robert Goolrick is a rich, fascinating, character-driven read. I immediately became caught up in the lost innocence of childhood and the impossibilities of Charlie and Sylvan’s affair. The depth of Heading Out To Wonderful is also due to Goolrick’s precise skill in writing love and lust and all that can go wrong with both.
Heading Out To Wonderful is literary fiction and I recommend it unconditionally for book clubs and individuals alike.