Review by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
In order to create a compelling novel (story) characters must have secrets, fictional facts, histories, and deeds for a reader to discover. If a novelist truly writes with the reader in mind, then secrets will be revealed sparingly, sporadically and at just the right moment, for it is the reader who must be compelled to read on. If there is not a mystery of some sort, why keep reading?
“The thing is, all memory is fiction. You have to remember that….This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I’m going to tell it to you”
Small towns are ripe for storytelling. And what is it about southern towns that lend themselves so readily to fiction? Think about To Kill a Mockingbird or Cape Fear or Gone with the Wind or, although set in New England, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Stories with gothic overtones, atmospheric, epic, larger than life, containing landscapes with dark clouds hovering literally or figuratively. John Steinbeck wrote these kinds of stories, too.
Robert Goolrick makes full use of the small town of Brownsburg,Virgina, population numbering 538, which he describes in this way on page five:
“Brownsburg, Virgina, 1948, the kind of town that existed in the years right after the war, where most people lived a simple life without yearning for the things the couldn’t have, where the general store had tin Merita bread signs as door handles, and , inside, slabs of bacon and loaves of thin-sliced bread and canned vegetables and flour and flannel shirts and yard goods and movie magazines for the dreamers and penny candies in glass jars on the counter for the children.”
Makes you wonder if everybody talks in this run-on sentence kind of way in Brownsburg, as if they have all the time in the world to tell you every detail about the town and themselves. It also makes you wonder if this simple town can continue to exist in this way. But the stage is set for action.
Action arrives in the form of Charlie Beale.
“Charlie Beale drove into town out of nowhere in an old beat-up pickup truck. On the seat beside him there were two suitcases. One was thin cardboard and had seen a lot of wear and in it were all of Charlie Beale’s clothes and a set of butcher knives, sharp as razors.
The other one was made of tin and it had a lock because it was filled with money. A lot of money. Charlie wore the key to the lock on a chain around his throat”.
This tall, dark and handsome stranger sets the town to talking. But he’s a nice guy and an artist with a knife. The local butcher hires him, the butcher’s wife invites him often to dinner and their son, Sam, immediately nicknames him Beebo. Soon he’s immersed in the town, coaching baseball, buying a home and a lot of land, becoming Sam’s defacto Uncle.
Enter naïve Sylvan Glass, married to Boaty Glass, a much disliked, rich man. The only way he could become a married man was to purchase Sylvan from her dirt poor parents. She’s beautiful, glamorous and seventeen, transplanted away from her family with a bargain struck that she can never see them again. She is equally strange to the folks of Brownsburg, but unlike Charlie, she is not assimilated into the local culture. They love to talk about her but they don’t want to befriend her. Her only ‘friend’ is the local dressmaker, Claudie Wiley, herself at odds with townsfolk because she is a black woman. You see this is a town still practicing segregation.
Goolrick does a wonderful job of creating an idyllic, sleepy setting, within which the reader discovers that ‘sin’ is around every corner. Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, this is not. And soon Charlie’s and Sylvan’s actions and secrets become fodder for the Brownsburg rumor mill. What the reader cannot predict and what I will not give away is exactly what happens.
The book is told through the voice of an unnamed narrator, and quicker readers than me, may figure out who it is before it is revealed at the end.
I believe Goolrick assumes the premise that God’s hand is at work, that sinners lurk around every corner, even in small towns, and that once an action is set in motion, it must play out. Sinners must be punished. Even the innocent are not spared. But who is really innocent?
The use of language and flow of words is magical and portentous. Often I read a section again just because the language was so beautiful.
Goolrick published his debut novel, A Reliable Wife (2009) to rave reviews. “With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick’s intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis”.
With either of Goolrick’s books be prepared to ‘set a spell.’
Published in Seacoast Seniors, Top Shelf Book Review, Portsmouth, NH, October, 2012. (link not available)