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Book Review / Fiction

Town's Friendly Folks Have Hidden Facets

GOODNIGHT, NEBRASKA, By Tom McNeal, Random House $23, 318 pages

July 24, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "Goodnight, Nebraska," his first novel, Tom McNeal takes a panoramic approach to storytelling, and his multiple narratives initially constitute a vivid, tender and thoughtful portrait of a "tiny black map dot" of a Great Plains farm town. Goodnight, Neb., has a population of 1,680, a total of seven paved streets and is home to the Friendly Festival, hosted during the first week of July. In Goodnight, Neb., news and gossip travel at lightning speed, lives are overlapped and interconnected, and people regularly struggle with feelings of unexpressed longing and sorrow.

The town is the sort of place where an old-timer greets a newcomer by saying, "If you didn't expect much you won't be disappointed"--and offers this greeting with a grin. The newcomer in receipt of this cautionary welcome is Randall Hunsacker, 17, who has been sent to Goodnight as an enlightened punishment for disgraces committed back in Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake, Randall stole a car and shot his mother's boyfriend for making love to his sister. "For a long time," McNeal observes of Randall, he "had been waiting to find someone worthy of the hatred he'd been nursing," hatred provoked by his father's early death, his mother's seedy amorous partners and his own adolescence with its fundamentally surly stance.

In Goodnight, Randall begins his life again. Indeed one of the novel's early pleasures is following this watchful, contemptuous, yet sensitive young man admit new healing layers to his young fractured life. He boards with Lucy Witt, a refined widow, and puts his mechanical talents to use at McKibben's Mobil station. He shines in football and eventually he attracts Marcy Lockhardt, a college-bound cheerleader who regards Randall as a sexual frolic until certain events push them closer together.

These are her parents' opposition to the young, wayward boy and his near-fatal accident on the football field. The people who save Randall's life are Marcy's parents, Lewis and Dorothy Lockhardt. Their gesture cements Marcy and Randall's bond and is a meticulously interwoven piece of plotting on McNeal's part: Moments before Randall slams into one of Rushville's players and collapses, Dorothy informs her husband that Marcy has been "having doings" with Randall, a painful betrayal that is motivated by an equally painful betrayal in Dorothy's own life.

Aware that "lots of decent people don't make the people they're married to especially happy," Dorothy has for several months been having a love affair with a traveling salesman. After abandoning her and absconding with her life savings, Dorothy's lover left her feeling "drained of everything human"--hence, we conclude, the impulse behind Dorothy's revelation of Marcy's sexual secrets. But the revelation backfires; after Randall's accident, he and Marcy marry, and soon Marcy, having pared down her ambitions, finds herself constricted by an unsatisfying marriage of her own.

Up to this point, McNeal has handled his multiple story lines with considerable finesse. Dorothy Lockhardt's love affair, in particular, is rendered without judgment or oversimplification. It has the organic drift of a life actually lived. But in widening his lens to include the stories of several other townspeople, McNeal spreads his narrative attentions far too thin. While the respectful dignity with which McNeal regards his characters' lives seldom falters, the connections among them peter out in scattered plot lines and sudden melodramatic events. Marcy's temporary escape to Los Angeles is but one example of an unsuccessful digression, but fortunately before the book closes, she returns to Goodnight and undergoes a "strange dilation" of attitude in which "now she found the quirks and petty complaints of farmers and neighbors and family quasi-comical, endearing even."

This is not to say that "Goodnight, Nebraska" is assured only when its characters are content. Quite the opposite, in fact: McNeal's characters resonate most truthfully when they are most heedful of their membership in a club of people "who walk around and eat meals and answer telephones and go to work and who keep tucked away inside them the sad secret stories that got them into the club." These sad secret stories bring out McNeal's most assured writing. They are his finest and most lasting gifts to the reader.

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