Is it ever really possible to start over – to leave your past behind and begin anew in a different place? Plenty of people come to Fort McMurray with just this aim in mind, only to have their hopes and dreams dashed by the brutal realities of financial burdens, relationship problems or addictions.
When I began reading Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful, the plight of protagonist Charlie Beale resonated with me for this reason, just as I think it will resonate with plenty of Fort McMurray readers.
Charlie Beale is a man searching for a new beginning. The year is 1948, and Beale has been wandering for months, maybe years. The guns of war have only been silenced for a few short years, and have left behind a generation of lost and broken men, men whose tenuous links to family and home have been smashed by the horror of their experience. Charlie Beale is just another of these lonely wanderers, travelling the highways and gravel roads of the United States in search of a place that will finally be home.
When he arrives in Brownsburg, Virginia, he thinks he’s finally found what he’s been searching for. Brownsburg is the quintessential post-war American small town, before the unrest of the 1960s and 70s and the consumerism of the 1980s altered the very nature of small-town life. Aside from his battered truck, all Charlie has to his name is a suitcase full of clothes, another full of cash, and set of gleaming butcher knives, a remnant of his pre-war life.
In Brownsburg, Charlie finds solace and a community of simple, good-hearted people who might not be willing to accept this stranger in their midst immediately, but are at least willing to give him a chance. Charlie charms his way into a job at the town’s only butcher shop, run by Will Haislett, and quickly becomes part of the family. Will’s wife, Alma, sees a core of goodness and patience within Charlie’s quiet exterior, and the couple’s only son, five-year old Sam, is enchanted with the stranger he nicknames “Beebo.”
Within weeks, Charlie is making himself a place in the town. He buys a house and furnishings, with Alma’s help, and begins making himself an indispensible part of Will’s business operations. More than anything, Charlie’s innate skill as a baseball player endears him to the rest of the community, who soon come to regard Charlie as one of their own.
But something is missing from Charlie’s life. He longs for something unnamed, something which has kept him wandering and searching year after year…and when the lovely Sylvan Glass walks into his shop, Charlie realizes he’s found his muse. The only problem is that Sylvan is already married, to the town’s wealthiest and most despised citizen, “Boaty” Glass.
Sylvan has had a difficult life by anyone’s standards. She grew up in one of the poorest and most isolated communities in the county, a backwater called Arnold’s Valley. When Boaty appeared on the Glass family’s rickety porch with a suitcase full of money, offering to buy the eldest daughter and the family farm in one stroke, the poverty-stricken Glass family accepted. But there was a catch: should Sylvan ever leave Boaty, the family would be evicted from their land and left with nothing.
As the wife of the town’s richest man, Sylvan has more material wealth than she’s ever dreamed of. But her dreams extend far beyond the town limits of Brownsburg. Sylvan dreams of being a movie star, even though the rest of the town knows her history and snickers at her behind her back, considering her pretentious and foolish.
Charlie doesn’t, though. In Sylvan, he sees a glamorous movie starlet, a muse who quickly becomes an obsession. Soon the whole town is buzzing about Charlie and Sylvan’s affair. The only person in town, besides the besotted couple, who knows the truth of the relationship is young Sam, who spends every Wednesday afternoon in the Glass kitchen while Charlie and Sylvan disappear upstairs. But nearly everyone suspects that something is going on, including Boaty Glass himself, who will turn out to be a dangerous enemy.
Before the flame of passion flares out for good, Charlie will find himself accused of a terrible crime, and his broken heart will spell disaster for himself and Sylvan, destroying the innocence of an entire town and changing Brownsburg forever.
If you’ve read Robert Goolrick’s previous novel, A Reliable Wife, you’re already familiar with his lyrical, almost poetic writing style, and you’re either a fan or it or you aren’t. Frankly, I found the style of Heading Out to Wonderful to be a bit wandering and fanciful, but the story itself was riveting.
Goolrick captures the heart of a wanderer, a man searching for a place to call home and chasing a dream of happiness and contentment that so many were searching for after the horrors of war. And as so many wanderers find, true happiness can be an elusive muse. Sometimes what we want most turns out to be the vehicle of our own destruction.