Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick

"Let me tell you something, son. When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand-new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”  This is the advice given to 5-year-old Sam Haislett, the speaker of which should have heeded his own advice.

Charlie Beale was a handsome, charismatic 39-year-old war veteran in 1948 when he wandered into sleepy Brownsville, Virginia.  He carried with him two suitcases, one full of money, the other full of knives.  Charlie liked what he saw in Brownsville and decided to stay.  He talked the local butcher into giving him a job (hence the suitcase full of knives), and soon he became well-liked by the townspeople, and adored by young Sam, the butcher's son.  The day that beautiful, young Sylvan Glass walked into his life, Charlie Beale was never the same. "She went off in his head and his heart like a firecracker on the 4th of July."

Sylvan Glass was the teenage wife of Boatie Glass, the richest, greediest, and most mean-spirited man around. Sylvan was raised in a backwoods berg to dirt-poor parents who were sadly desperate enough to sell her to Glass.  Although she had no education, Sylvan was wily enough to reinvent herself into a Hollywood starlet wannabe, fashioning her new persona from movie magazines and afternoon matinees.  So when Charlie, along with young Sam always in tow, entered her life, she saw him as a means of playing out her fantasy life.  Unfortunately, Sam was always there as an innocent witness, reading comic books at Sylvan's kitchen table, while she and Charlie were upstairs. It's obvious from the start that this flirtation can come to no good.  And the reader gets a personal accounting from adult Sam Haislett who narrates tragic events of the story.

Heading Out to Wonderful reminded me of a runaway train. It started out nice and calm, even passing some beautiful scenery along the way.  But soon enough you realize that the train is out of control as it picks up speed.  You're hoping that the crash won't be that bad because you have become invested in the book's very well-developed and interesting characters. Then comes the crash, and, wow, you never saw that one coming!

A Booklist reviewer says that Goolrick, in Heading Out to Wonderful, "creates a mesmerizing gothic tale of a good man gone wrong." It is mesmerizing indeed, a book you won't want to put down.  It is implied at the beginning of the book that Charlie Beale had somewhat of a checkered past, and I sure would like to have found out where he got all that money in his suitcase.  The author unfortunately bypasses those key bits of information.  But other than that, I give this book two thumbs up.

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