Heading Out to Wonderful

By Robert Goolrick

(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

He once was a “Mad Man” who wrote advertising copy for such clients as Kohler and Pantene, but his drinking led to a life on welfare.  A recovering alcoholic for more than 20 years, author Robert Goolrick is perhaps best known for his 2009 best-seller, “A Reliable Wife,” soon to become a movie. He also made waves with the frank family memoir, “The End of the World As We Know It,” which alleged abuse by his father.

Goolrick lives in a small town in Virginia, and not so coincidentally, a Virginia town is the setting for his latest novel. He will speak about his book tonight at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison. Information: 203-245-3959.

What is this book about?

It’s 1948 in Brownsburg, a tiny rural town in Virginia, and here comes World War II vet Charlie Beale, toting two suitcases. One contains, among other personal possessions, a set of butcher’s knives. The other is full of cold cash, money whose provenance will remain a mystery throughout this story.

Charlie, a Northerner and a stranger and therefore the object of suspicion, manages to get hired by the local butcher and comes to love the man’s little boy, Sam, as if he were his own son. He also falls in obsessive, dangerous love with the stunningly beautiful Sylvan, the teenage wife of the town’s richest and nastiest man, who more or less bought her from her hillbilly family.

Knowing just this much gives you a good idea of where this story is heading, and it’s not necessarily anyplace wonderful. The tale, which Goolrick told a USA Today interviewer he first heard in Greece and adapted to an American setting, is told mainly by Sam as an old man.

Why you’ll like it:

Goolrick uses the hill country dialect and idioms of the Blue Ridge Mountains to tell his tale, which gives it the air of a sad country ballad, full of the betrayals and heartbreak you often find in country-Western songs. He’s telling the story of a romance too hot not to lead to violence. Though Goolrick refuses to tie up all the loose ends he lays out, his story reels you in and keeps you hooked.

What others are saying:

“…Just after WWII, 39-year-old veteran Charlie Beale arrives in small-town Brownsburg, Va., hoping for a brighter future. He offers his services to the local butcher, Will Haislett, and works his way into the good graces of Haislett’s family, especially five-year-old Sam. But even as Charlie finds acceptance, he remains apart in Brownsburg: he attends services in every church before finally finding redemption in an African-American Episcopal service; he buys up more land than he needs; and he makes a big mistake by falling for Sylvan Glass, the young wife of wealthy, old, vulgar Harrison Glass, who bought Sylvan at 17 “like a head of cattle.” Sylvan, an outsider like Charlie, dreams of Hollywood, while Charlie simply yearns for a place to call home. Goolrick (A Reliable Wife) tells their story from multiple perspectives, most poignantly that of Sam’s, a boy trying to make sense of the unfolding tragedy. Like any good ballad, the narrative builds slowly to its violent climax, packs an emotional punch, and then haunts readers with its quintessentially American refrain,” says Publishers Weekly.

“Drifter Charlie Beale—toting a cash-stuffed suitcase and a set of premium butcher knives—moves to a small and notably crime-free Southern town. While the bloody writing is on the wall from the beginning, this novel is not a straightforward Southern gothic thriller but primarily a lyrical meditation on the magnified elements of small-town life: friendship, trust, land, lust, and sin. Sylvan, a beautiful hillbilly girl— literally purchased by the town’s richest man — has transformed herself into a shimmering imitation of a Hollywood movie star. Her seemingly preordained adultery with Charlie is both condemned and envied by the town. The soul of the story, however, is Charlie’s five-year-old companion, Sam, whose parents inexplicably allow him to accompany Charlie everywhere. As a witness sworn to secrecy, Sam is left tragically complicit in the adultery and its consequences. …Goolrick (A Reliable Wife) creates a timeless town where memory of an affair and crime can haunt forever. A lyrical yet suspenseful novel for general fiction readers,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

If you’re heading out to the Downtown Hartford Public Library or to the Goodwin branch on Thursday, June 28, or thereafter, you can borrow a copy.

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