Tuesday, December 31, 2013

You're going to have to pass through all right

This next book sort of combines the themes of the previous two -- Southern eccentricity mixed with a bit of gothic horror -- and it did not sit well with me, but not because of that combination. I recognize the craft of the author, but can't look beyond the icky story to appreciate it.  Robert Goolrick's second novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, made its way into my possession as a prize in Devourer of Books Audiobook Week celebration. Suffice it to say, it was my second choice.

Charlie Beale has nothing but a suitcase full of money and another full of butcher knives in his truck when he rolls into Brownsburg, Virginia a few years after World War II.  (Yes, Mr. Chekhov, the knives are used, but the source of Charlie's money is never explained.) Brownsburg is a sleepy, Blue Ridge Mountains town where the 538 residents know everyone else rather too well but they mostly get along because they all follow the unwritten rules. Charlie finds work with the local butcher and soon is accepted by the residents. He begins to buy land and settles down in a house in town. The butcher's five-year-old son Sam worships him.

Charlie begins to take Sam on his weekly trip to a stockyard where Charlie humanely butchers each week's supplies before bringing the meat back to Brownsburg. One fateful day, Charlie makes a stop on the way home. He stops at the home of Brownsburg's wealthiest citizen, Harrison Boatwright "Boaty" Glass. Boaty is not at home, but his very young wife is. Her name is Sylvan, and she was purchased by Boaty from her hillbilly family a few years ago. A controlling man (duh!), Boaty has fulfilled at least one of Sylvan's dreams -- to remake herself in the image of the Hollywood movie stars she has seen at the movies and in magazines. Charlie instructs Sam to stay in the truck and never, ever tell anyone that they were here.

Sam never breaks that promise, but it all ends badly anyway.

Sam's situation really bothered me in this book. Charlie professed to love Sam, but he used him in the worst possible way. (OK, maybe not in the worst possible way, but my mind screamed "child abuse" all the time I was listening.) Even Sam's parents, once they figured out what was going on, didn't put a stop to the visits. Ick, ick, ick. Sam's now the omniscient narrator telling us the story 60 years later, and here is how he begins: "Was I damaged by it, they wanted to know, wounded in some way? And I always say no. I don't think I was hurt by it. But I was changed, changed deeply and forever in ways I realize more and more every day. Anyway, it's too late now to go back, to take that rock out of the river, the one that changed the course of the water's flow." Yeah, children often don't blame their abusers.

Setting this aside, there is no doubt that Goolrick can turn a phrase, that he is a master of the small detail, that his prose has the feel of an old mountain ballad of love gone wrong. The audiobook does have a mournful, evocative violin intro/outgo that exemplifies that musical metaphor.

I think that a lot of my dislike stems from the book's narrator, Norman Dietz (although the author doesn't agree). Dietz has a light, but craggy and older-sounding (seasoned is what that article calls it) voice that ably stands in for our 65-year-old narrator.  He reads with a slow pace that does capture the sense of what life is like in Brownsburg, although I can't deny I wish he had sped up a bit. It's when he takes on the other characters in five-year-old Sam's life, that it all starts to get a little creepy. His portrayal of Sylvan -- who has lost her hillbilly twang by listening to those movie stars and now speaks with that affected 1930s faux-English accent -- is just uncomfortable. She's faky high-pitched and whispery femmy. And Dietz doesn't seem to be able to reproduce that Hollywood-esque accent.

The other woman Dietz fails at is the novel's sole African American (well, there is a preacher who shows up twice): A dressmaker named Claudie who creates Sylvan's Hollywood wardrobe, including a memorably described dress worn by a tap-dancing Ann Miller in On the Town. (Here's the dress.) Claudie has all that same femmy-ness as Sylvan with an added layer of (for-want-of-a-better-word) Negro-ness that sounds like a white guy trying too hard.

When he portrays Sam, it goes beyond discomfort and into the range of child molester. This is harsh, but what I mean is that his adult voice making baby talk gives me a sensation of an adult talking down to a child in order to get something. All the more horrifying when you consider the position that Sam has been put in.

The post title is from the book: "Before you get to wonderful, you're going to have to pass through all right." (Which may be an old saying, but might also be from the musician Bill Withers, who -- of course -- may have heard it from ... an old saying.) Regardless, as I write this on New Year's Eve 2013, I think about my listening year and how I passed through a lot of all right. This audiobook doesn't rank as the nadir (here you go, if you'd like the reminder), it's in the lower range of all right.

[US copyright means that no images from Photoplay magazine in the 1940s are available. This 1949 cover featuring Claudette Colbert is from an Australian publication and was likely the kind of magazine Sylvan Glass loved to pore over. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Narrated by Norman Dietz
Highbridge Audio, 2012. 9:30

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