Though one of his protagonists—Charlie Beale—is a butcher, it is Goolrick who cuts into the heart of 1948 America with exquisite precision, dissecting an era and an event with a compassionate yet realistic eye, balancing the weight of sin and compulsion and the consequences of both. When Charlie Beale chooses Brownsburg, Virginia, as the place he wants to put down roots, enamored of both the people and the Virginia Valley, Brownsburg responds in kind. Charlie is hired by the local butcher shop on Main Street. His skills bring happy customers flocking to the shop where owner Will Haislett is often accompanied by his five-year-old son, Sam, a shy boy who soon becomes Charlie’s constant companion.
The Haisletts take Charlie under their wing. Alma chooses furniture for his newly-purchased home, guiding their new friend in the ways of the town, the personalities of neighbors, even “Boaty” Wainwright, the area’s richest man. Formerly Will’s childhood friend, Boaty has turned mean and avaricious, large in body but small in spirit, best known for his stunningly beautiful country-bred wife, Sylvan, purchased along with her father’s farm for a goodly sum. In that deal, Sylvan is tied to her husband until death, unable to leave lest her folks be rendered homeless.
Charlie injects energy into the town, roaming the countryside buying property, making friends with locals who readily accept him. Content at work and when wandering with Sam and his dog, Charlie only realizes he has been waiting for something when he looks into Sylvan’s eyes and she gazes directly back: “She went off in his head and his heart like a firecracker on the Fourth of July.” Suddenly, Charlie is filled with light and a sense of purpose, Sylvan the siren call only he can hear.
Goolrick casts all in the glow of post-WWII small-town America, where a solitary man has found a place to call home, though he remains unwilling to endure fire-and-brimstone sermons on Sundays: “There are no fires in hell. There is only mercy.” He greatly enjoys attending the black church but understands that his presence there may bring scrutiny to a people who do their best to avoid notice. Still, with young Sam as a companion, Charlie is content, drawing closer to secret, forbidden trysts with Sylvan. Sam bears innocent witness, reading comics and nibbling cookies while the grownups disappear upstairs. Promising never to tell a soul, Sam keeps his word, but secrets never stay that way. Someone eventually notices Charlie’s car on Boaty’s property. The townsfolk don’t begrudge Charlie his secret, but events conspire against the passionate love affair between a man with an open heart and a girl who knows nothing of the world but movies and happy endings. Through the lovers, tragedy is born.
In an era when family values define place and conditions, what exists in the dark cannot thrive in the light as ministers threaten parishioners to avoid the sinner among them. While Charlie watches, the town turns its back on him—all but Sam—his fall from grace complete. Most devastating are the words of his betrayer, the shining lover who has starred in her own movie, only to find that reality exists beyond celluloid. Portraying his protagonists without judgment in all the shades of humanity that define them—Charlie, Sylvan, even Sam (“Childhood is the most dangerous place of all. If we had to live there forever, we wouldn’t live very long.”), who holds fast to his promise to Charlie—Goolrick injects his novel with unexpected wisdom and compassion, the trajectory of love sadly out of sync with its object, a foolish, unschooled girl. It is Sam’s story to tell, the only witness to every phase of Charlie’s life in Brownsburg, where every dream is fulfilled, if not sustainable. Even the people in the town are redeemed in an ending that brought me to tears, as Charlie “heads out to Wonderful.”