In this pitch-perfect novel, Tom McNeal explores the currents of hope, passion, and cruelty beneath the surface of the American heartland. In Randall, McNeal creates an outcast whose redemption lies in Goodnight, a strange, small, but ultimately embracing community where Randall will inspire fear and adulation, win the love of a beautiful girl and nearly throw it all away.
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When Randall Hunsacker was thirteen, his family moved from Salt Lake City to a canyon in the foothills, into a stilted five-room house perched above the tightest in a series of tight turns in the canyon's sharply descending road, so that from their front porch Randall's family often got a good view of cars pushed to the limits of control. The screech of fires, followed by the acrid and-to Randall's nose-exhilarating odor of burnt rubber, was an everyday occurrence. Randall himself hoped that one of these cars would spin out and perhaps roll over. He didn't exactly hope for human carnage, but he knew that in such cases it was sometimes unavoidable. Occasionally, if he was alone as a car passed by, Randall would make the ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunking sounds he imagined a rolling car would produce.
When a Buick Riviera carrying two people actually did miss the curve, Randall was disappointed he was not there to see it. It was an early July evening. He and his father were working late, painting somebody's guest house in Federal Heights. His mother had already begun her shift at the Ten Pin. His sister, Louise, was in the back of the house with a girlfriend, sitting at the kitchen table, thumbing through TV Guide and Glamour, talking about boys and haircuts. The man driving the Buick Riviera missed the curve completely, shot pell-mell up the embankment and without braking slammed through the spindly posts that supported the front porch, which dropped like a table leaf.
By the time Louise and her girlfriend rushed out the back door and came sliding down the bank, the driver, an oil man from Wyoming, and his passenger, a young woman wearing Levi's and dangly silver earrings, were laughing like maniacs. The driver's comic perspective of the event did not, however, keep him from filing legal actions one week later against Wasatch County and the builder of the house and Randall's parents for approval, construction and occupancy of a substandard structure within the county's required building setback. (In regard to the county, there were several ancillary charges involving such things as "inadequate signage precedent to a mortifyingly dangerous curve.")
From August to December, while this matter inched toward resolution, Randall's family entered the house either by scrambling up the side of the hill and coming around back or by climbing an ancient extension ladder to the front door (to improve stability, Randall's father strapped the ladder to stakes at its base and to the house above, but nonetheless, at its midsection, the ladder had the unnerving feel of a suspension bridge).
"An oil man, out sightseeing with a girl half his age, knocks out your front porch, then sues the bejabbers out of you," Randall's father said to Randall one day out of the blue as they were finishing up a job. He swung his characteristic half grin toward Randall. "Don't ever tell me it ain't a screwy ol' world."
Randall's father was a large, hearty man with a pink scalp edged with just a horseshoe of silky brown hair, a man who smelled pleasantly of sweat and sawdust and cigars, a man who had shed his optimism gradually and with regret. He took on whatever odd jobs turned up, and Randall liked tagging along. Randall carried tools, and ran back to the truck when others were needed. He lugged away whole rolls of old carpet. He mixed perfectly uniform batches of concrete. He painted carefully. He didn't know which came first, his liking the work or being good at it, but both were true. Whenever someone praised Randall, his father always said the same thing. "Yep, he's my little supernormalist," he would say, a reference to a joke he'd heard long ago, and then he would append an explanation: "The boy thinks he can do anything."
In January, Randall's father signed a side agreement proposed by the oil man's insurance company, which held harmless both Randall's father and the driver, and in addition provided Randall's father with a check for $200.00 to cover the direct expenses of buying the piers, posts, planks and paint required to rebuild the porch.
"Two hundred smackers," said Randall's mother in a derisive squeezed-tight voice, and then, turning a bitter smile to Randall and Louise, "Your father finally hit it big."
On the day his father died, Randall had gone ice fishing with a friend. Randall thought of staying home to help with the porch, but his father said that all he was going to do that day anyhow was line up materials and maybe just get started. The meaty part would begin tomorrow. Meantime, his father told him, ice-fishing trips didn't come along just every day.
Louise was the one who found him. Louise was not quite sixteen. Before returning home, she'd spent the afternoon with a girlfriend. When she heard her father's portable radio playing beneath the house, she called out that she was home. "It's me," she said, peering into the dimness. At her girlfriend's house Louise had drunk some cola with rum in it, but whatever giddiness she'd been feeling vanished as she followed the muted sound of the portable radio to the body. She wondered if she ought to try to get to his mouth to do resuscitation, but when she experimentally touched his hand she understood from its stiffened nature that he was dead without doubt. Louise withdrew in stupefaction. She climbed the extension ladder into the house. She washed her hands twice with soap, then she called her mother at the Ten Pin, and informed her of the facts.
By the time Randall got home, they'd removed the body. First the jack and then the cribbing his father had built to support it had given way. He was pinned beneath the timbers. When Randall was alone with Louise, he began asking questions. What did he look like? Did he write anything in the dirt? Louise said maybe he was trying to say something because his mouth was open. His body had already begun to stiffen, she said, and his tongue was gray. From the wild marks in the dirt and the state of his pant legs, his feet had flailed around even while his chest was pinned down. She stopped as if unsure whether to go on.
"Nothing," Louise said finally.
"Tell me, Weasel. Tell me what else." (As a child, Randall had called Louise Wheeza, which, at about age ten, he'd altered spitefully to Weasel, which had then undergone a more mysterious translation, from malice to affection.)
"No, that's it," Louise said. "There is nothing else." Randall could see she didn't think he believed her, and he didn't. So she said, "Except it seems like a terrible way to die, without even two minutes to prepare for it."
When he had the chance to slip away, Randall crawled under the house. He thought he might find blood, but he didn't. What he found were the gouges and scrapings in the dirt his father's boots had made. There was no order or pattern to them at all, and it was easy to imagine the violent thrashing of his legs as the house pressed the last air from his father's chest. His father's flashlight lay to the side, switched on, its beam barely visible. The silence under the house was as deep and complete and discomposing as cave silence. It seemed to compress so tightly from all sides that it suspended Randall within it. For a long moment he couldn't move. Finally, as Randall scooched away, he saw something else. A few feet downhill from the scrapes and gouges was the stubby, half-chewed cigar that had been in his father's mouth at the moment the cribbing gave way.
That night Randall lay in bed wondering how he could feel so different. It was as if a hand had reached inside him and taken his heart and begun gently to squeeze. His heart was tender at first, then raw, then it hurt, actually hurt, with every beat. This went on. Even when he awakened in the night from sleep, it was there waiting, the dull, painful, rhythmical throb.
The memorial service was short, with a hired stranger from the mortuary saying words that meant nothing. Besides Randall's sister and mother, the only others in attendance were two waitresses from the Ten Pin. Randall's mother was not herself. Her cynicism had slipped away and left her disoriented. When the service was over, Randall had to touch her elbow and lead her stiffly outside the chapel to join the others standing in the bitter cold. Nobody put his arms around anybody else. No one knew what to say. One of the waitresses said it was the coldest winter she ever remembered and the other waitress said, "Coldest and longest." A silence followed. Randall's mother in a small voice said, "He always joked that he preferred winters like this. He said it helped keep the riffraff out."
Six weeks later, on Randall's fourteenth birthday, his mother laid two identical revolvers on the kitchen table in front of him. "Your father took these in pay from a widow lady and cleaned them all up. The idea was he'd keep one and give you the other for your birthday. He thought you'd both take up partridge hunting or some ridiculous thing." The hardness was gone from his mother's voice; she seemed in fact about to cry. Randall didn't want to see it. He pulled one of the long-barreled pistols closer to him on the table. It was a Ruger-a bird with a dragon's head was set into the wood handle. He lifted the pistol; it felt like three pounds easy. "I'm pawning one," his mother said, "but I thought you might want the other."
Randall shoveled snow for neighbors up and down the canyon, and when he'd earned the money, he bought a gray felt case for the pistol, and slid it into the back of the bottom drawer of his dresser. A month or so later, he bought a box of .44 Magnum cartridges that he arranged neatly next to his father's last half-chewed cigar in a Roi-Tan box that fit snugly beneath a loose floorboard on the back porch.
A few months after the funeral, Randall's mother came home with a man. She didn't introduce him to Randall and Louise. She let the man stand there and do it himself. "I'm Arnold," the man said. Instead of extending a hand, he kept rubbing his scalp. He was a tall man and had just conked his head on the living room chandelier. Randall's mother looked at Arnold and then at Randall and Louise. She seemed at a loss. "Look," she said when Arnold excused himself to use the bathroom. Her voice and manner were wobbly. "Your father's gone now. I wish he wasn't, but he is."
The line of boyfriends was a long one that ended with Lenny. Lenny was four years younger than Randall's mother, but looked younger yet-his face seemed always to have the flushed, pleased look of a bully who's just won a fistfight. He dressed in unbelted Levi's and clean white tee shirts with a thin-width cuff rolled at each sleeve. He reminded Randall of a weird mix of Fonzie from the old TV show and the little killer Perry in a movie he'd seen called In Cold Blood. Lenny had never married, but was engaged a few years before to a woman whose photograph he still carried in his wallet. One night at Hardy's Restaurant, he pulled the picture from its plastic sleeve and laid it on the table before Randall, Louise and their mother. While they regarded the woman in her revealing bathing suit, Lenny talked. "My fianc?e had no attention span whatsoever," he said. "'I'm hungry,' she'd say and we'd stop someplace nice and three bites into a plate of spaghetti she'd just let the fork fall from her hands. 'I'm full now,' she'd say."
All at the same time Lenny folded up his wallet, laughed and shook his head. "I like it when a woman knows what she wants, Lenny said, winking at Randall's mother. "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants," and then he said, "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants a little while before she does." This time he winked at Louise.
Louise gave him a look of heartfelt revulsion. Lenny smiled and adjusted the roll on his sleeve until it was just so.
It occurred to Randall that Lenny took pleasure in believing that most people were a little afraid of him. Whenever Lenny flashed his self-pleased smile on Randall, a wet pricklish fear spread over Randall's neck, a fear that brightened Lenny's eyes.
Most of a year passed. Lenny didn't marry Randall's mother, but one Sunday, without much preparation, Randall, Louise and their mother moved into Lenny's house in the Rose Park section of Salt Lake, on the dwindling side of I-15. "My house is like me," Lenny said. "It's big for its size." It was a basic one-story brick house, but Lenny had built his bedroom into the attic and had begun remodeling the basement. This was where Randall and Louise were to sleep. Lenny had installed a tiny corner bathroom with a fiberglass shower enclosure, and had begun separating the rest of the basement into two dismal rooms. He'd framed the dividing wall, but hadn't yet gotten to the insulation or Sheetrock. It felt to Randall like a honeycombed cellar, something you'd normally enter only in a bad dream. Louise tacked up sheets for privacy while Lenny stood by and talked about how cool it was down here in the summer, and how warm it stayed in the winter.
"And I should just think of all the mouse punks as chocolate chips," Louise said, and Lenny, pretending she meant it as funny, laughed hard.
Mornings, Lenny worked out with free weights in the front room, cooked and ate a six-egg omelet and, if the weather was good, washed his truck, all before he went off to work at 7:30. It was a truck, as far as Randall was concerned-but Lenny called it a tractor. He pulled trailer-homes with it, though Lenny liked to call them mo-biles (he elasticized the final syllable, so that it rhymed with trials). Some were fourteen-wides, and some were twenty-fours and twenty-eights that came in two sections. Lenny pulled them into place, set them on piers, made the sewer, electrical and propane connections. The setups formed the core of his work, but the skirtings and awnings were the easy money. Randall didn't offer to go out on jobs with Lenny and Lenny didn't ask. It was Randall's mother who pushed it.
So one wintry day, against his will, Randall found himself bouncing along in the high, closed cab of Lenny's truck, the cassette deck playing gospel music loud. While Lenny drove, Randall shuffled through the plastic cases on the dash. Mahalia Jackson. The Clara Ward Singers. The Gospel Harmonettes.
Table of Contents
|ONE: The Supernormalist||3|
|THREE: The New Boy||41|
|FOUR: Villas in Italy||90|
|FIVE: Mrs. Lewis Lockhardt||94|
|SIX: What Letty Hobbs Saw||130|
|SEVEN: Football Weather||132|
|EIGHT: The Parmalees' Dog||152|
|NINE: The Crooked Bridge||154|
|TEN: Frmka's Market||175|
|ELEVEN: Tell Me Something||177|
|TWELVE: Cares and Woes||209|
|THIRTEEN: The Hunting Party||211|
|FIFTEEN: Winter in Los Angeles||236|
|SIXTEEN: Grand-Slam Breakfast||261|
What People are Saying About This
"You'll want...to buy copies for all your reading friendsflawless."San Francisco Chronicle
"What a remarkable debut!... A small town that is as vivid and alive as Sinclair Lewis's Zenith, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon."The Denver Post
"Deft, touching, and humorous. In the tradition of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Anne Tyler."The Christian Science Monitor
"McNeal is aware that many more of us will accept the sadness we know than venture out in search of a possibly painful unknownand he renders such decisions in language whose very plainess feels musical."The New York Times
"A vivid, tender and thoughtful portrait of a great plains farm town. These sad, secret stories bring out the best of McNeal's writing, and are his finest and most lasting gifts to the reader."Los Angeles Times
"Completely compelling. A beautifully drawn portrait of a town that at once combines and cradles the people who grow up in it."National Public Radio
"A strange, bumpy, and memorable trip through small town USAa compelling journey into the heart of American life."Redbook
Reading Group Guide
1. How and when was the pattern set for Louise's wild and self-destructive life? Why is she unable to break out of this pattern, while Randall, ultimately, is?
2. Why is Randall so affected by the joke about the supernormalist, remembering it at intervals throughout his life? What might it mean to him? Do you agree with Marcy's interpretation of it [p. 88]?
3. How does Randall's experience with Anna Belknap pave the way for his attraction to Marcy? What does Randall look for in a girl? How does he define love, and how does he modify this definition as he grows up?
4. Was Randall's staged accident in Salt Lake City a deliberate suicide attempt? If not, what might he have been trying to bring about? How does this car accident parallel and echo the car accident at the end of the novel?
5. After the accident, Randall's right hand, with its missing fingers, is permanently deformed. Why does the author continue to remind us of this deformity throughout the book? What other characters have some sort of deformity, either physical or emotional? How are all these wounds connected?
6. Why does Randall behave in such a self-destructive fashion for so many years, even though he clearly craves love and acceptance? What unresolved issues in his past contribute to this behavior?
7. If Lucy Witt had not found Randall's letters, or if Lewis had not thought he overheard Randall making the crude joke in the bar, might Randall have found his way more easily and happily in Goodnight? Or would other, similar incidents have arisen? Do his early problems stem from the prejudices of the townspeople, or from his own behavior?
8. Why is Marcydissatisfied with Bobby Parmalee, and why is she so strongly attracted to Randall when she first gets to know him? How does she justify to herself her decision to sleep with him? Why does she decide to marry him? Was it a decision taken for the wrong reason?
9. Why do both Dorothy and Lewis instinctively act to save the life of Randall, the boy they think they hate?
10. Randall tells Marcy about a memory from his childhood: "A kid up the hill raised racing pigeons, a whole bunch of them, and then one day he just decided he was tired of it and started shooting them. He killed about seventy-five percent right off. What was weird was that the rest would circle around and eventually come back because it was the only place they could think of as home" [p. 197]. Later Marcy is reminded of this when Dorothy suggests that Marcy and Randall move back to the farm. How does this story reflect Marcy's life? Randall's? Other characters in the novel? Who breaks out of this mold, and in what way?
11. Why does Dorothy become so extremely depressed and restless at this particular moment in her life? Might her problems have been triggered by Marcy's defection to Randall, with the abandonment of any dreams that Marcy, or her parents, might have had for her future? What might Dorothy's own dreams have been for herself?
12. When Dorothy asks Lewis what he believes in he says "Me. I believe in me" [p. 126]. How does Lewis's character shape and affect his life? As a reader, how do your feelings toward Lewis change and develop as the novel progresses? Who has a more practical philosophy of life, Lewis or Dorothy? Which proves more resilient in the end?
13. Why does the author devote so much space to the pheasant hunting trip? What does it tell us about the lives of men in this culture? How do the day's events change Meteor Frmka's life? How do they change Randall's?
14. What sort of statement, if any, does Goodnight, Nebraska make about small-town life? Does life in Goodnight, as McNeal depicts it, seem impossibly claustrophobic, or is it attractive? What must one give up to live in a community like Goodnight, and what does one gain?
15. Randall, in coming to Goodnight, and Marcy, in going to Los Angeles, both hope to "start over." What do their experiences tell us about starting over? Is it ever really possible to do so?
16. Every young person has ambitions and dreams; every older person has been to some degree disabused of them. How do the characters in this novel come to terms with or modify their dreams? What does Marcy hope for herself at the beginning, and what does she feel she can hope for by the end? What about Dorothy and Lewis? What does it mean, in Goodnight, to have "prospects"?
17. How do patterns of behavior, of love and marriage, of achievement, repeat themselves from generation to generation among characters in this novel like the Hunsackers, the Lockhardts, the Parmalees, the Frmkas? How do parents' mistakes and decisions affect the decisions their children will eventually make? How hard is it to break these patterns, and who succeeds in doing so? Is it more difficult to break this type of pattern in a small town like Goodnight than it might be in a larger and more diverse society?
18. Broadly outlined, Goodnight, Nebraska could be described as Randall Hunsacker's search for redemption. How successful is this search, in the end?
19. Do you believe that a place or a community molds its inhabitants in its own image? If so, how would you describe Goodnight and its citizens?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked this book. Good story, believable characters, steady pace. All in all, a very satisfying read.
captivating in its description and unexpeted in its turns, I was pulled along and lived with these people for all too brief a time Contrary to the more professional reviewers, the twists and happenings mimic authentic lives and also Nebraskans accept and move on outlook
This could have been a movie for me. It is the coming of age, and redemptive story of Randall Hunsacker. Although he is just a teenager Randall has been sent to Goodnight, Nebraska to turn his life around. He has escaped a violent past and left behind a broken family in Salt Lake City. Redemption is not what Randall is seeking, at least not at first. Goodnight is a small tight-knit community and Randall's inclusion is not readily welcomed. He rebels with ridicule in letters to his sister and remains a mystery in school. The only place Randall allows himself to feel anything is by being violent on the football field. Over the course of ten years Randall slowly starts to settle down with a wife and an occupation. It is during this time that Randall realizes redemption is what he needed all along.
Can Tom McNeal write anything that doesn¿t take your breath away? I¿m beginning to think not.McNeal is reminiscent of both Faulkner and Steinbeck in that he combines accounts of terrible evil (all the more horrifying because often aleatory) with glimmering moments of glad grace, both delivered in spare but elegant prose. Yet unlike the feeling of repugnance that I get with Faulkner and Steinbeck (even while respecting their art), in the case of McNeal¿s writing, I come away from the reading experience feeling elevated. I find that I care even about characters who commit morally repugnant acts, because McNeal elucidates so well and so compassionately the inexorable forces that drive these characters, and the painful regret that threatens to drown them.Under the guidance of McNeal¿s pen, Goodnight, a fictional small town in Nebraska, turns from pine-scented and crisp and burning-leaf-smokiness in the fall, to cold and grim and white in the winter, to buttery-yellow and brilliant green and full of hope in the spring. Likewise, the clear-eyed people who live there switch from wary to cruel to forgiving, often moving from one to the other in the blink of an eye. McNeal records it all with pinpoint clarity, so that by the time you finish the book, the characters feel so real to you that you are astounded that you will not be meeting them again the next day. And you find yourself - crazily - wondering how they will be getting on this day, since you know you won¿t be hearing from them.Randall Hunsacker is 13 when we first meet him and in his mid-thirties when we leave him, but most of the story takes place when he is seventeen. He moved to Nebraska from Utah after a brief detention in a juvenile center, and now lives on his own, rooming with an old widow. He plays high school football with a ferocity not seen in Goodnight for many years, works at a garage after school, and late at night he conducts a surreptitious relationship with popular cheerleader Marcy Lockhardt. Marcy is smart and ambitious, but Randall has never been able to focus beyond the moment at hand.There is a subtle, menacing undertow pulling apart the people in Randall¿s life, fed by long winters, intrusive gossip, and stifled hopes and dreams. McNeal follows these characters, detailing just how hopelessness and frustration more often lead to violence or madness than to complacency. A ¿Deliverance¿-type hunting trip taken by Randall some friends is the centerpiece of this shared internalization of the harshness and wildness of the endless Nebraska plain. And what about the love that weaves through this story? This is where McNeal shines, because he seems to know love in all its manifestations, and is not opposed to sharing its secrets with us. As Marcy observes: "¿there are some kinds of love, the ones we¿re all after, that are meant for open air and natural light, but there are other kinds, too, more than we¿d like to think, that come out of the dark and drag us away and tear parts from our bodies, kinds of love that work in their own dim rooms, and harbor more sad forms of intimacy and degradation and sustenance than those standing outside those rooms can ever dream of.¿Evaluation: Although this book is not related to McNeal¿s later book, To Be Sung Underwater, I loved going back to this earlier one and seeing the ghostly outlines of his later characters Judith and Willy. Does it matter if you read them in or out of order? Not a bit: it just matters that you read them, because they are wonderful.
A disturbingly peaceful story. Isolated and lonely like the setting of the book in western Nebraska. This book would appeal to deeply introspective readers who are willing to look into their own isolated places in the heart. I would definitely read McNeal's other works. Yes, I would recommend this to bookclubs.
Confession -- I grew up in Nebraska, left it as a young adult, still attend the College World Series (the best sporting event in the U.S.), and retain a favorable view of the overall goodness of its people. Accordingly, at times I found this book just not believable with all of the deeply-flawed characters that populate Goodnight. Then again, it made for interesting reading. Just be prepared for a disturbing event every 40 or 50 pages or so. Feel good stuff this ain't.
This book was probably one of the best books I have ever read. The way McNeal describes all the little details and emotions of the characters makes it possible for almost anyone to relate to at least one character. You will pick up this book and not be able to put it back down once you begin to read it. Even after you do set the book down you will be thinking about what happened for a long time after. This book is definetaly worth any persons time.
Tom McNeal's novel, 'Goodnight Nebraska' is simply one of the most enjoyable novels written in the last 20 years. McNeal's tone and style so perfectly match his story you can almost smell the midwest as you read it. The characters of this novel keep you pondering their choices long after they have made them and the relaxed feeling of the town makes you want to drive out and visit them. This is a great debut novel and hopefully not the last for Mr. McNeal.