Bruce Springsteen's album "Nebraska" evokes the spare spirit of the Midwest perhaps better than anything in American music. Terence Malik's haunting Badlands does the same thing in American cinema. Now, Goodnight Nebraska, a phenomenal debut novel by Tom McNeal, accomplishes in literature what The Boss and Malik did for the Great Plains in other forms. Randall Hunsacker didn't want to come to the hamlet of Goodnight, Nebraska. The arrival of the 17-year old was forced after his involvement in a shooting, a car theft, and the twisted steel carnage of a subsequent crash in Utah. Randall is an outsider in a town where whispers, a stubborn resistance to change, and something dangerous simmers beneath rigid appearances. Randall falls for Marcy Lockhardt, the high-school's most pristine and promising student, and she falls for Randall's mysterious past and quiet introspection. Despite their desire to escape the drudgery of Goodnight, they are sucked even deeper into the strange town by marriage and lost ambition. If you have ever spent time in a small plains town, you know the feel the invisible pull that keeps people in a depressing place with their secrets, lies, and unrealized hopes. Randall and Marcy are no different. Their tumultuous marriage is punctuated by silence and indifference. Much in the manner of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, McNeal seamlessly weaves their story with intense, sometimes graphic tales of the other townspeople. These interlocking stories chronicle the unknowingly unhappy, and the vulgar that underpins what for all appearances is simple, bucolic. Further, McNeal's incredibly cinematic descriptions tellingly dramatize the slow, dull aches of hearts stuck in muddy, rutted roads of emotion. McNeal writes with a quiet intensity, and his scenes of domestic heartbreak and terror happen in the middle of paragraphs. While frightening, the scenes work to underscore that life, especially on the hardscrabble plains, and are not broken neatly into chapters. Affairs happen, friendships fail, marriages fray, and people die in strange, violent ways. This is a day in the life. All this simply occurs. Without warning. Without headlines.
Like the later stories of Raymond Carver, Goodnight Nebraska demonstrates that under the callused hands and hearts lie a soft-beating hope the chance for reconciliation and acceptance. McNeal has written an uncommonly human novel; he describes a landscape where, however briefly, the numbness disappears and things as insignificant as interlocked hands, a simple statement, or even a drive on dirt roads means something larger, the promise of something better.
Reviewed by Mark Luce.