Robert Goolrick's first novel, A Reliable Wife, surprised me--in a very book-reviewer turn of phrase, I think of it as an erotic Ethan Frome (which I know, like that pickle dish wasn't sexy enough, rawr!). Heading Out to Wonderful, out last week, shares the meditative, old-fashioned pacing of Reliable Wife, but it's a very different story--and surprised me in a different way.
Wonderful is set in post-WWII Virginia, though the proverbially-sleepy small town of Brownsburg hasn't bothered to change much for decades. Into this idyllic stability comes Charlie Beale, with his set of butcher's knives and a (never-explained) suitcase full of cash. He's a loner and a wanderer, but ready to settle down, so he gets a job at Will Haislett's butcher shop, and is soon a part of his family, a second father to five-year-old Sam. Then he meets Sylvan Glass, the too-glamorous, Hollywood-obsessed wife of the town's richest man, who literally bought her from her backwoods family when she was seventeen. Using excursions with little Sam as a front, they start what they believe is a passionate affair, though it's clearly a slow-motion tragedy.
But while another author would be most interested in the clandestine couple, the ways in which love is always epic, the illusions we create of lovers even as we know we're doing so, Wonderful is really Sam's story. It's clear from the beginning that his older self narrates, and while he swears he wasn't wounded by the events Goolrick tells, it's hard not to ache for him, tagging along every Wednesday to the house Charlie buys Sylvan, marking time with comic books when they go upstairs. His hero-worship won't let him see what's being done to him, any more than Charlie's all-consuming adoration of Sylvan lets him understand what he's doing. Charlie loves Sam, doesn't mean to hurt him--but intent alone isn't enough.