Love and heartbreak in the Valley of Virginia
Readers who loved A Reliable Wife, the bestseller that titillated book clubs across the country, might be surprised to learn that Robert Goolrick’s warm second novel has a lush Southern setting—and is based entirely on a true story.
“Essentially, in every way, the story is true,” Goolrick says while sitting in BookPage’s office in Nashville. He is in town to preview the novel at Parnassus Books, author Ann Patchett’s new bookstore. “When I heard this story, I thought to myself, this is actually—absolutely—the best story I’ve ever heard,” Goolrick recalls. “There was something about it that fascinated me.”
Goolrick, who is 63, heard the story after college, when he lived on a remote Greek island. In Heading Out to Wonderful, the setting has been changed to the town of Brownsburg, in the Valley of Virginia. But everything else—from the main character’s profession to the gasp-inducing climax—is the same.
The novel opens in 1948, when Charlie Beale wanders into Brownsburg with nothing but a suitcase full of money and a set of fine knives. Brownsburg is a quiet town with a population of 538, a place where “no crime had ever been committed,” people believed in God, doors were never locked and “where the terrible American wanting hadn’t touched yet, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn’t have.”
Charlie soon finds work at Will Haislett’s butcher shop and is welcomed into his family. He becomes almost like a second father to Sam, Will’s five-year-old son, and grows attached to the Virginia countryside, which “just stole his heart at every turn of the road.” When a piece of land “made his heart beat in a certain way,” he would buy it, paying in cash.
A Reliable Wife was something of a sleeper hit for Goolrick. His first book, a memoir called The End of the World as We Know It, met with positive reviews and modest sales. But his novel, about a woman who answers a wealthy man’s personal ad in rural Wisconsin in 1909, has sold more than a million copies.
After he realized that “there was going to be a fuss made about A Reliable Wife,” Goolrick left his home in New York and moved to Virginia, where he was born. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who does nothing but go to literary cocktail parties all the time,” he says. Now he lives in an old farmhouse in White Stone, a town that’s home to fewer people than one floor of his New York apartment building.
The author calls Heading Out to Wonderful his “love letter to Virginia,” and it vividly evokes the wild and gentle landscape that comforts Charlie’s soul. However, Charlie’s desire to own land stems from more than just a love of dirt and creeks. He is obsessed with a married woman, and he buys it all for her.
As fans of A Reliable Wife will remember, Goolrick is skilled at portraying passionate, encompassing love—and lust. Those skills are on display again when Charlie first sets eyes on Sylvan, the young and beautiful wife of Boaty Glass. Rich and fat, Boaty is despised by his fellow townsmen, not least of all because he purchased Sylvan by giving her hillbilly father $3,000 and a tractor. Sylvan reinvents herself as Boaty’s wife, commissioning fine clothing and longing for the kind of romantic love she sees in the movies. She finds that love with Charlie, but she realizes the reality of love is not the same as her fantasy. Their precarious relationship sets in motion the drama of the story and provides a sense of foreboding.
To the people of Brownsburg, Charlie is a kind person. He butchers animals with humanity, agrees to coach a boys’ baseball team, gives Sam attention and love. But those good instincts are paralyzed in the presence of Sylvan, especially when Charlie decides to bring young Sam along for their secret liaisons, then swears him to secrecy.
A reader once asked Goolrick if he thought love could make men crazy. The author responded, “Are you kidding me? It’s the number one thing.” And indeed, Charlie is helpless in front of Sylvan. Goolrick explains, “If you have that kind of passion and that kind of love, then all of the governors that you put on your behavior kind of fly away.”
As much as Heading Out to Wonderful is a novel about a love affair, it is also a novel about childhood. One of Goolrick’s beliefs is that writers have an “essential truth they’re trying to get across in their work.” For him, that truth is “something about the nature of goodness and kindness and something about the nature of the innocence of childhood and how easily lost that is.”
The author is reverent when he speaks about this tender part of life, which he calls “the most dangerous place of all.” For readers familiar with The End of the World as We Know It, which details the history of abuse in Goolrick’s family, this deep feeling for “the predicaments of childhood” will not come as a surprise. The new novel’s most painful passages concern Sam’s abrupt loss of innocence.
Though there are obvious differences between A Reliable Wife and Heading Out to Wonderful—including setting and time period—Goolrick describes the most fundamental difference in simple terms: “A Reliable Wife was a novel about bad people to whom good things happen, and Heading Out to Wonderful is about good people who happen to have bad things happen to them.”
It is also about the search for home and the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, which Goolrick calls “heaven on earth.” Told in his lyrical prose, Heading Out to Wonderful is a pleasure to read—heartbreaking but inspiring and unforgettable.