Heading Out to Wonderful
by Robert Goolrick
The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller A Reliable Wife returns with a new novel about the dark side of passion set in mid-century America in a small Virginia town.
An attractive and enigmatic stranger—Charlie Beale, a loner recently home from the war in Europe—wanders into the town of Brownsburg, a sleepy village of only a few hundred people nestled in the valley of Virginia. He brings with him two suitcases: one contains all his worldly possessions, including a set of butcher’s knives; the other is full of money.
Charlie quickly finds a job at the local butcher shop and through his work there meets all the townspeople, most notably Sam Haislett, the five-year-old son of the shop’s owner, and Sylvan Glass, the beautiful, eccentric teenage bride of the town’s richest man. What no one anticipates is how the interaction of these three people will alter the town forever, and how the passion that flares between Charlie and Sylvan will mark young Sam for life.
Told through the eyes of Sam, now an older man looking back on that time, this much-anticipated second novel from Robert Goolrick is an exciting,erotically charged, and altogether unforgettable story of love gone terribly wrong in a place where once upon a time such things could happen.
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1. The novel begins with a first-person narrator who is not immediately identified but is revealed at the end of the story. What effect does his point of view have on the way the story is told? Did you find him to be a reliable narrator? How different do you think the story would have been if it were told from the point of view of a third-person omniscient narrator?
2. The book’s opening line is, “The thing is, all memory is fiction.” What do you think the author means by that? Do the novel’s characters and plot bear out this assertion? Can you remember times in your own life when something that you remembered as true turned out to be false, or when something you remembered as happening one way was later shown to have happened another way entirely?
3. The novel seems to make a distinction between sin and crime, neither of which, from outward appearances anyway, would seem to have established a presence in Brownsburg before Charlie met Sylvan. What do you think is the distinction between the two? What do you think is Charlie’s greatest sin, and what is his most heinous crime? Who else in the town do you think is guilty of sin, and what were those sins?
4. In the novel, the town of Brownsburg, circa 1948, is depicted as a nearly idyllic place, “where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn’t have” (page 5). Do you think this kind of depiction is an example of the fiction created by memory, or is this ideal something that American towns once had but have now lost? If you believe the latter, what do you think were the corrupting factors? What has been your own experience in this regard?
5. Early in the story, Will tells Charlie, “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” (page 16). Does this quote foreshadows the events to come in Charlie’s life, or is it merely a caution, a warning, from a wiser, older man? Had Charlie been able to settle for “all right,” at what point would he have realized that he had arrived at his destination? How would Charlie’s life have been different if he had settled for “all right”?
6. The novel is set just after World War II, in an era and a place where race relations were hardly simple or sanguine, and in the story, the racial divide is an almost constant element, even if it is not a central theme. What does Charlie’s willingness to befriend
the town’s black citizens—as witnessed in his desire to attend their church—tell you about him as a man, and what does it suggest about his past life?
7. Claudie, the black seamstress, was once given a chance to leave Brownsburg to try to find a life outside that town, yet she decided not to leave. Why do you think she made the decision to stay? What do you think would have happened if she had made that leap
and left Brownsburg?
8. How does the novel’s postwar setting inform the story’s mood, plot, and character development? How do you think the story would have played out had Charlie arrived in Brownsburg in the mid-1970s?
9. When Charlie Beale arrives in Brownsburg, he is back in the United States after serving in the Army overseas, and he carries with him two suitcases, one of which is made of tin and has a lock, “because it was filled with money. A lot of money” (page
10). Where and how do you think Charlie got all this money? If you were to create a backstory about what Charlie’s life had been like between leaving the service and arriving in Brownsburg, what would that story be?
10. Charlie feels most at home outdoors. What does this connection to nature and to the earth reveal about him? Do you think he yearns to be outdoors out of love or out of fear?
11. When Charlie sees Sylvan, he feels an immediate attraction. Other than her beauty, what do you think attracts Charlie to Sylvan? What attracts Sylvan to Charlie? What do they each seek in the other? Can you imagine a scenario in which their relationship could have a happy ending?
12. The novel seems to suggest that Sylvan’s yearning for Hollywood beauty, glamour, and fame is part of a larger American refusal to settle for reality. Do you think this longing was, in fact, a part of the national psyche in the late 1940s, or is it simply the
yearning of a girl who grew up without love or even hope? Do you think there is a tendency of lonely people to long for fame today? If so, how is it manifested?
13. “She wasn’t a bad girl,” the novel contends repeatedly about Sylvan (pages 53, 230, and 256). What do you think? How do Sylvan’s courtroom allegations about Charlie color the reader’s perception of her? It is clear in the novel that Charlie has fallen completely in love with Sylvan, but do you think she was ever really in love with him? Is it possible that she was—in keeping with her Hollywood fantasies—in love with the idea of being in love?
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"I love Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful. The novel’s seductive power and the beauty of his writing create a delicious feast for the reader."
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help
"Beautifully written, striking in its imagery, Heading Out to Wonderful is a passionate and tragic story of a love affair that is entirely consuming yet completely forbidden. Robert Goolrick has crafted another rich, evocative, and sometimes unsettling story."
Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
"There’s something about Goolrick’s books, this one and A Reliable Wife, that makes me really, really dislike humanity. We all cheat, steal and lie, all the time, and maybe one day, if we all read enough of Goolrick peering into our souls, we’ll finally fucking stop it."
Russ Marshalek, Social Media Director for Flavorwire
"Goolrick set a frigid Wisconsin winter afire with passion in his first novel, A Reliable Wife, and he brings the same talent to bear in Heading Out to Wonderful. As before, his characters’ motivations are neither as reliable nor as wonderful as they reveal to others, and for that virtually everyone pays a price…Don’t look for logic in Heading Out to Wonderful. Characters go on calmly with their lives, but the story is rife with denial, secrecy, emotion and impulse, all the makings of tragedy. Through his memoir and novels, Goolrick returns again and again to the undercurrent of private passion that can roil beneath the smooth surface of our public lives. The persistent question is, are people better off for having experienced the passion, or should they stop at all right? The answer is not always clear — or logical."
"haunting…Goolrick’s novel has the economy and mournful grace of an old mountain ballad, and its repercussions echo far outside the little valley."
"Heading Out to Wonderful is an engrossing read; it’s easy and flowing but then has elements of rushed and fevered embraces. Charlie Beale is a likeable character which adds all the more to a shocking turn of events . . . [Goolrick’s] last book, A Reliable Wife, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Heading Out to Wonderful should land there as well."
Montgomery Publishing LLC newspapers
"Norman Dietz tells the post-WWII story of Charlie Beale, a drifter who arrives in the sleepy town of Brownsburg, Virginia, and decides to stay . . . Dietz’s calm style adds to the sensuous descriptions while still creating the feeling that something bad is going to happen. The listener, lulled by Dietz’s tender voice, will feel the horror of the plot’s climax as strongly as young Sam and the people of Brownsburg."
"[A] poetic tale that simmers with foreboding atmosphere."
Printers Row magazine, Chicago Tribune
"Goolrick is skilled at portraying passionate, encompassing love—and lust . . . Told in his lyrical prose, Heading Out to Wonderful is a pleasure to read—heartbreaking but inspiring and unforgettable."
"Goolrick’s prose is rich, wise and beautiful . . . Such fine writing carries the doomed story up to its very end."
Historical Novels Review
"A lyrical meditation on the magnified elements of small-town life: friendship, trust, land, lust, and sin . . . Goolrick (A Reliable Wife) creates a timeless town where memory of an affair and crime can haunt forever. A lyrical yet suspenseful novel for general fiction readers."
"Powerful . . . There is much pleasure-giving psychological truth along the way . . . Arresting."
"With understated delicacy, Goolrick, in his second novel, after the well-received A Reliable Wife (2009), creates a mesmerizing gothic tale of a good man gone wrong . . . Goolrick effortlessly creates a timeless, erotically charged tale of illicit passion and peoples it with a unique cast of characters . . . Finely crafted fiction from a captivating writer . . . [A] terrific sophomore effort."
Booklist, starred review
"Goolrick’s tale of doomed love resonates like a folk ballad, with the language of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its people giving this novel its soul . . . Like any good ballad, the narrative builds slowly to its violent climax, packs an emotional punch, and then haunts readers with its quintessentially American refrain."
"Disarmingly low-keyed in style, if not content, [Heading Out to Wonderful] will be much anticipated where [A Reliable Wife] was loved."
"A gorgeous, haunting, page-turning love story, and a graceful and nuanced meditation on fate, childhood, and the intricate tangles of small-town life. I enjoyed Heading Out to Wonderful even more than A Reliable Wife."
Jill Owens, Powell’s Books, Portland, OR
"Robert Goolrick tell the haunting story of an enigmatic world, with characters as richly drawn as any I’ve ever encountered. This remarkable novel is one that no reader will soon forget."
Mitchell Kaplan, Books & Books, Miami, FL
"I loved Heading Out to Wonderful! Goolrick’s story and characters are amazing, and the writing is so pure, clean, and sharp. I felt like a part of the world these people inhabit. This is a really fine novel."
Korje Guttormsen, Books Inc., San Francisco, CA
"Provocative . . . Robert Goolrick evokes time and place better than any author writing today."
Bill Cusumano, Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI
"I loved Heading Out to Wonderful. This is a terrific piece of fiction. It’s beautifully written, quietly understated, emotionally charged and the ending packs a real emotional wallop! I think this will be a big hit with our summer crowd and look forward to selling the heck out of it!"
Karen Ford, McLean and Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, MI
"In Heading Out to Wonderful, Robert Goolrick brings us a beautifully crafted southern gothic tale, where the pull of the land and of community fight against individual faith and erotic passion, and good and evil co-exist at every turn. Goolrick's evocative language is at once lulling and searing, his characters intimately drawn but utterly complex. This is a deeply affecting story brought lovingly to life by one of our best contemporary writers. The ballad of Charlie and Sylvan will haunt you long after you've turned the last page, as it has me."
Denise Berthiaume, Books & Books, Westhampton Beach, NY
"True to what you’d expect from the author of A Reliable Wife, Goolrick’s characters are enigmatic, imperfect, and do not behave according to society’s dictates. The romance that erupts between Sylvan Glass – an unschooled country girl with dreams of Hollywood in her eyes – and a newcomer to town, Charlie “Beebo” Beale – will change everyone in town in unexpected ways, most of all 6-year-old Sam who bears witness to their fiery, ill-fated affair. A great summer read!"
Connie Brooks, Battenkill Books, Cambridge, NY
"WOW! What a book! Heading Out to Wonderful is one of the most touching novels I have ever read. A Reliable Wife was very good but this one is great!"
Regina Barnes, Toadstool Bookshop, Milford, NH
"If you loved A Reliable Wife, run to your nearest bookstore to buy Robert Goolrick's newest novel Heading Out to Wonderful. It's another great story of an illicit love triangle, but this one adds a fourth character in Sam, the son of the local butcher, who ponders late in his life the consequences of the love gone wrong."
Beth Carpenter, The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC
"Robert Goolrick was born to enthrall us with stories of ordinary and not-so ordinary people caught up in the passion of life. In Heading Out to Wonderful he brings his vivid characters and setting to full exposure. After we sell millions of copies I imagine that Hollywood will turn this incredibly seductive novel into a big-screen blockbuster."
Sally Brewster, Park Road Books, Charlotte, NC
"Goolrick is a master at writing powerfully emotional books that build up to a shocking climax and his latest is no exception! Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of a small town just after World War II and the tragedy and heartbreak that occur there—this one packs a punch!"
Lauren Peugh, Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop, La Verne, CA
"I am moved to think that the author, Mr. Goolrick, has experienced the kind of love that forms the basis for this book. The love that comes unexpectedly and unbidden; that transports to the heights of happiness and depths of despair; that inhabits the heart and smashes the soul. How else could he write about Charlie, the lonely stranger new to Brownsburg, VA and Sylvan, the beautiful teenage bride of the town's richest man. How else could he put on paper this story, as old as time, but told with such force of emotion that I found my physical self propelled forward through this book with not turning back."
Peggy Elefteriades, R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT
"The joy of Goolrick's novels is in the not knowing. Motivations, character and destinations are revealed slowly, and with beautifully crafted sentences. Heading Out to Wonderful surpasses A Reliable Wife in both the tension and satisfaction of a story masterfully told."
Neil Rajala, Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI
"Heading Out to Wonderful brings us Charlie Beale, a mysterious loner, longing for connection. He arrives in Brownsville with 2 suitcases, one holds everything he owns, including his set of butcher knives, the other is full of money...So begins this powerful tale that illustrates the power of love to both redeem and destroy lives."
Andrea Avantaggio, Maria’s Bookshop, Durango, CO
"Robert Goolrick has created one of the most memorable small towns in American literature—a place where innocence, love, and evil all mingle, and where tragedy has taken up residence. Like the best old-fashioned country murder ballads, Heading Out to Wonderful, is full of mystery, portent, passion, and love done gone wrong. With its shocking conclusion, I could not for the life of me shake this one from my mind—it continues to bewitch me. I can only say that if Harper Lee and Stephen King ever collaborated on a novel this would be it."
Kelly Justice, Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA
"There was a lot going on here . . . a terrible tragedy in post-WWII Virginia, where no crime had ever before taken place (unless you count racism, domestic violence and the tyranny of organized religion as crimes). That is until Charlie Beale comes to town with two suitcases--one contains his butcher knives and the other money. He finds employment and gradually becomes beloved by the citizens of this small valley and in particular by the Haislett family and their 5-year old son Sam. Then Charlie meets Sylvan Glass, the newly purchased and lovely bride of the town's repellant and soulless "rich guy". It doesn't turn out well for anyone, and I'm including the dog. I liked the style of writing and thought Robert Goolrick did a great job describing how if felt for Charlie to be in love with Sylvan--an agony and an ecstasy all at once."
Susan Buschman, Anderson's Bookshop, Naperville, IL
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