Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that if you place a loaded gun on the mantle in the first act, the gun had better go off or there was no purpose in the gun being there in the first place. (I acknowledge that this is a gross paraphrasing but the truth behind the statement is intact.) Robert Goolrick has obviously internalized this maxim and uses it to impressive effect in his latest novel, Heading Out to Wonderful.
Charlie Beale is a stranger to the small, peaceful Virginia town of Brownsburg when he arrives with his truck, his set of butcher knives, and a suitcase full of cash. He starts by camping out by the river and deciding if this closed and somewhat xenophobic place is where he wants to put down roots now that he's back from fighting in WWII. And strangely enough, he does want to stay in this place that is initially less than welcoming, asking local butcher Will Haislett to hire him on, buying up land and eventually a house, and befriending Will and his wife Alma's five year old son Sam along the way to winning over the rest of the town.
Charlie, nicknamed Beebo by Sam, seems to have no past, at least no past he's willing to share, but he is a decent man and finds himself being folded into the life of the town, accepted and liked by everyone. And everything seems wonderful until he spies the beautiful, teenaged Sylvan Glass with whom he is instantly captivated. Unfortunately, Sylvan is married to the town's wealthiest and meanest man, Boaty Glass, who essentially bought his child bride, bringing her from her poor, hardscrabble existence in a mountain holler to be his trophy in a town not quite willing to accept her. Charlie, as another outsider, falls hard for Sylvan and although at times she seems almost diffident about him, they are fated and their inevitable ending was written the first time Charlie clapped eyes on her.
Goolrick has created a masterfully atmospheric novel here. Even before any conflict occurs and everything is seemingly perfect in this fictional world, there is an undercurrent of menace and foreboding, a dark intensity to the tale that makes the reader alert to the cracks in the facade of innocence and idyll. Narrated sixty years on from the main events of the tale by Sam, who was present for more of the story than anyone else in the book besides his beloved Beebo, this is a novel of desperate love, betrayal, mystery, and obsession. Charlie remains a cipher throughout the novel but even so he charms the reader as much as he charms the inhabitants of Brownsburg. Sylvan is distant and lonely and trapped by her past. Her method of coping, through fashion and the movies, is pitiable. The important secondary characters are intriguing, especially in the ways they face the main plot development. And what an unexpected development it is! Goolrick leads the reader, ratcheting up the tension slowly but steadily, as things between Charlie and Sylvan get more and more complicated, even as they are always bound and governed by outside forces, until the final shocking denouement, a plot twist that threatens to unravel much of the town. Richly detailed and completely engrossing, there is no doubt from the beginning that the book cannot contain a happily ever after. That gun casually placed on the mantle must go off. And Goolrick's aim here is nothing but true.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.