Review by Julia Newhouse
When you have read and loved an author’s work, their name comes to mean something to you. Just as you might avoid a novel because you hated an author’s other works, the announcement of a new work by an author you admire can be a real joy. In 2009, I had, by chance picked up a copy of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. Having never heard of him before, I came to the book with no expectations, and was floored. It was certainly the best book I had read in a long time. With his beautiful syntax, and subtly powerful writing style, I was thrilled and excited to hear about Goolrick’s second novel Heading Out to Wonderful. And all of the expectations were not for naught: Heading Out to Wonderful is beautifully rendered, poetic, and emotionally gripping.
We are never told where he comes from, but we follow handsome, middle-aged Charlie Beale, who arrives in a small Virginian town after the Second World War: ‘Brownsburg, Virginia, 1948, the kind of town that existed in the years right after the war, where the terrible American wanting hadn’t touched yet, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for the things they couldn’t have…’ Working as a butcher in the town’s local store, Charlie observes the characters of this small town from the inseparable elderly twins (the Misses Allie) who never married, to the gifted local seamstress Claudie Wiley, who even the white women go to for their clothes. Charlie settles into his life, and builds a surrogate family through Alma and Will Haislett and their young son Sam. Life in the town is, and has long been uneventful until Sylvan Glass, the young wife of the town’s richest (and most awful) man walks into the shop. In this moment, Charlie Beale’s life changes, and we sense that this unavoidable love affair is bound to bring about some sort of crisis in a small town where nothing much has ever happened.
This is the kind of book that proves that you don’t need a million big events to make a book gripping. This is a piece of writing devoted to little moments, beautiful little scenes with all of the power and import they hold for those around them. Goolrick’s writing infuses moments with warmth and care. When Charlie and Sylvan meet, he writes: ‘Charlie Beale had heard her name. Sylvan Glass. She went off in his head and his heart like a firecracker on the Fourth of July. Something dazzling, Something stupendous. Something, finally, that was wholly and mysteriously wonderful’. We feel what happens in the novel acutely, because of the beautiful way in which Goolrick paints the words across the page. We feel the familiar comfort as well as the cloying nature of small town life, just as we feel the fire and passion that burns in Charlie from the very moment he lays eyes on Sylvan Glass. Painting the prejudices as subtly as the landscape, Brownsburg comes alive on the page. Robert Goolrick is undoubtedly one of the most poetic writers of our time, and Heading Out to Wonderful is a great reflection of his talent.