A torrid extramarital romance is the heart of Goolrick’s powerful but problematic second novel; it follows the acclaimed A Reliable Wife (2009).
Brownsburg nestles beneath Virginia’s mountains. In 1948 it’s a no-stoplight, God-fearing, segregated place, the blacks out of sight. Strangers are monitored rather than greeted, strangers like Charlie Beale, a 39-year-old Northerner with a suitcase of cash. His first purchase is the river land where he’s been sleeping. He’s evidently a gentle soul, childlike even, but how could a naïf have acquired all that cash? That’s never answered; the stranger’s mystique is preserved at the cost of credibility. Charlie’s a butcher by trade, and he’s hired by a local guy, a good Christian like his wife. They dote on their only child, 5-year-old Sam, and soon Charlie does too. He also comes to dote on one of his customers. Sylvan Glass is a bewitching blonde, barely out of her teens, with a thrilling fantasy life; she’s a star-struck movie fan. She’s married to a much older man, Boaty Glass. Boaty is fat and rich and mean. He plucked Sylvan from her hillbilly family in the hollows, paying cash down; Boaty’s negotiation with her dirt-poor father is utterly convincing. Charlie and Sylvan are drawn to each other from the get-go; Sylvan sees him as her matinee idol, while Charlie is transformed by unconditional love. He buys her a house for their trysts, doing Sam no favors by using him as a cover. Goolrick is aiming for the somber momentum of the ballad, and there is much pleasure-giving psychological truth along the way, but at a key moment his calibration fails him. Something extraordinary happens, out of the blue. “You may wonder why, and I’m telling you that I don’t know,” is the narrator’s cop-out. That doesn’t stop the gothic flourishes of a murder/suicide, followed by a second suicide; yet arresting as they are, they seem arbitrary.
There are some weak links in a chain that's still capable of pulling you along.