Norman Dietz, Reader
In 1941 Duke Ellington wrote a song, "Like a lonely weeping willow lost in the wood / I got it bad and that ain't good!" Despite the mixed metaphor, it would be appropriate for our hero, Charlie Beale. He comes to Brownsburg, Virginia, population 500, at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the summer of 1948. He arrives in an old truck, parks by the river, and since he's a meat-cutter by trade, ends up working in the local butcher shop run by Will Haislett. In a short time, Charlie is beloved of all, but he, also, has it bad.
It's Sylvan Glass, wife to the richest man in town, Boaty. Boaty went over to a near-by valley and bought Sylvan from her poor family for cash (and a tractor), brought her back to Brownsburg, a trophy for all to look at.
What Charlie sees in her we can only guess. She's young and beautiful, "has a sweet, girlish voice."
She couldn't have been much more than a teenager. She didn't sound like she was from around Brownsburg. She spoke in some faraway accent, like a princess, or an actress.
Turns out she is an actress (Lauren Bacall in the movies; Helen Trent on the radio).
Charlie is an angel, everybody loves him, he's so honest, brave, and true ... he plays a great game of baseball with the kids at the annual fair. He becomes like a father to Sam --- Will and Alma's six-year-old kid, even saves his life when he falls in the river.
He also becomes like a second husband to Sylvan Glass, but it would have been better had he laid off. Sneaking into Boaty's house on Wednesday afternoons when he was supposed to be out butchering is not the wisest move. But he and Sylvan are, possibly, made for each other, even though she's bespoke (as we used to say).
Husband #1 doesn't take kindly to trespassers. "He had wanted a glorious hood ornament for the car of his life. Sparkling, finely made, isolated and virtuous ... With a magnificent wife, he would be seen as someone who was himself adored."
When Boaty got riled, he heard a constant, high-pitched whine in his ear, and felt the bitter tides of the bile churning in his stomach. It took Boaty a long time to get mad, but when he did, he stayed mad and waited patiently, hands folded across his expansive stomach, for his revenge.
It's the same old same old, no? Clytemnestra, Tantalus, and Agamemnon; Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony; Anna Karenina, Count Karenin, and Count Vronskyi ... and so many people that you and I know, too many, making a fool of themselves, two chasing after one. This time the story is transposed to rural America, back when we were so innocent and so good, having saved the world.
Is it her fault? Does Sylvan make a fool of Charlie and Boaty? Do they do it to themselves? Who knows? It's all in how it's told.
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Heading Out to Wonderful is told á là Lake Woebegone. These people are post-WWII American honorable moderne: clean, honest (except that rascally Boaty); faithful (five churches); true to their prejudices --- blacks kept over there --- but, somehow, honorable all the same. Charlie is saintly, his one flaw introduced discreetly. That is, he came to town with a suitcase full of money, and we don't have occasion to ask why, and Goolrick ain't telling. We can only guess, for Charlie's ability to wield the German cutting knives is uncanny (the way he butchers cows, the way he cuts the meat --- it always tastes better). Thus his last two acts of butchery come to become a given.
The story is nicely unfolded for us; we come to care for most of these characters. We are told early on that there is going to be trouble (the kid Sam doesn't reveal what he knows "until it was too late"). But there is a certain harshness here, perhaps, a brittleness. Of course, with Charlie's first glance at Sylvan we know there's got to be a fracas, and these people are not all that angelic, even for the late 1940s American gothic countryside. After all, Charlie cuts up cows for a living, sleeps with another man's wife. I suspect the harshness grows out of one man buying another man's daughter to be his wife: for $3,000 "cash money" and a tractor.
I heard this first in the HighBridge audio version. I can't tell you --- wait, I am telling you --- how entrancing the reading by Norman Dietz. It's one of the best narratives I've ever run across. Dietz's voice is perfect, and perfectly engrossing. Immediately after listening to it, I got hold of the book so I could write this review, get the quotes right, and, incidentally, reread the story. What a let-down.
Was it that I knew the plot now, knew how it was going to end, all the twists and turns? Is there that much difference between voice and print? Is it possible that this is one of those rare books, like one of those from the era of Richardson, Dickens and Balzac, that was solely meant to be read aloud?
Is it that Dietz is a mesmerizer, with his mid-America accent, his unflappable recounting, his calm and reason (it is, after all, a story of calm and reason, America small town life in 1948). It is and stays stolid until the accusation, the violence, the murders.
Whatever it is, I urge you to forego the pleasures of the page and seek out these eight CDs from HighBridge. I suspect you will be trapped, as I was, by the story never being hurried along: us (and it) always waiting for the next subtle, gentle, expressive move of events, to unfold for us ... moved by the voice, never by the eye.--- Richard Saturday