"Heading Out to Wonderful," by Robert Goolrick, takes place in 1948 in Brownsville, Va., a typical small Southern town. "The notion of being happy didn't occur to most people. ... They just accepted their lot, these 500 or so men, women and children, black and white, the blacks knowing their place, as they said then. ... They were religious people, their faith got them through whatever fell on them. ..."
Then, one hot summer day, a stranger arrives in town. A lean, clean-cut man in his late 30s, he has two worn suitcases in the back of his beatup pickup, one containing a set of butcher's knives, "sharp as razors," and the other filled with money. Beyond saying that he has "lived a reckless life," we never learn where he came from or where he got the knives or the money.
His name is Charlie Beale, and he's looking for a home. He finds one with Alma and Will Haislett, who own a local meat store and need a good butcher. They, and their 5-year-old son, Sam, become his only real friends. Beale buys some land, but prefers to sleep in the back of his pickup. He likes being alone.
The richest man in Brownsville is a middle-aged fat man named Harrison Boatwright Glass, known to all as Boaty. He is arrogant and tells bad jokes he expects everyone to laugh at, and nobody likes him. Despite his money, women have no use for him and, feeling lonely in his big house, he decides to buy a wife. After days of driving around the countyside, in one desperately poor area he sees her -- blonde, breathtakingly beautiful, about 17 years old.
He goes to her father, a poor farmer with more children than he can afford, and offers him $3,000 for his farm and his daughter, whose name is Sylvan. Boaty lets him continue to live on his farm, providing Sylvan marries and remains faithful to him. She feels she has little choice. So she marries him, endures his sweaty lovemaking and lives almost entirely in the fantasy world she finds at the movies.
One day, she goes to Will's butcher shop and she and Charlie Beale fall in love at first sight. Reviewers have compared this to a folk ballad, and there are frequent references to -- and quotes from -- those old songs.
At the feast Charlie arranges for Sam's sixth birthday, he brings in a bluegrass band and they sing of "The Knoxville Girl" who cried, "Oh, Willie dear, don't kill me here, I'm unprepared to die."
Goolrick's first novel was the best-selling "A Reliable Wife," and the sensuality and suspense that marked that book are part of this one as well.
There are three other characters essential to this story. One is a dog named Jackie Robinson, the only one who never turns against Charlie. Another is the boy, Sam, who worships Charlie and unwittingly becomes an important part of what happens to him and whose final secret is not revealed until the very end. And there is Claudie, a gifted black woman and talented seamstress whose remarkable abilities as a dressmaker help to create the woman Sylvan wants to become, although she never really can. Unwilling to be part of the white world, she nevertheless becomes Sylvan's only real friend.
Needing a place to take his lover, Charlie buys her a house, and then another, until finally she is the richest landowner in the county. They try to keep their affair secret, but this is a small town and soon everybody knows. Although no longer desiring her himself, her bitter husband refuses to let her see Charlie again, and brings rape charges against him. For reasons we are never told, Sylvan does not deny the charge. From here, the story follows a path to an end you do not see coming but which seems inevitable.
Goolrick is so skilled a storyteller that you are swept along and resigned to the outcome even before it happens. You might not love this book, but once you begin it you won't want to stop reading.