Charlie’s a butcher, and a good one. The existing butcher hires him and befriends him. Soon the butcher’s 5-year-old son, Sam, reveres him, and Charlie becomes like a second father to the lad. Enter Sylvan Glass, the young wife of the loathsome, morbidly obese Boaty Glass — the richest man in Brownsburg. Boaty has literally bought Sylvan from her father, a hardscrabble farmer outside of town, and made her his wife.
But Boaty has gotten more than he paid for. Sylvan turns out to be no dumb hillbilly. Through the radio and movies, she reinvents herself and soon looks more than a bit like a Hollywood siren. When Charlie first sees her, he is smitten, and they begin a torrid affair, using young Sam as their cover. On Wednesdays, when Sam is supposed to be keeping Charlie company on the weekly ride to the slaughterhouse, the boy is actually reading comic books at Sylvan and Boaty’s kitchen table, while upstairs Sylvan and Charlie make their strange and secret noises in the bedroom.
It’s clear that no good will come from this dalliance, especially given the persistent echoes of “The Great Gatsby” that waft through the novel.
Nevertheless, “Heading Out to Wonderful” is not as assured as “A Reliable Wife.” The novel is narrated by Sam, now an older man looking back on his friendship with Charlie and what he witnessed as a boy, yet the novel is written largely in the third person. “This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I’m going to tell it to you,” Sam tells the reader on the first page, but then for lengthy sections proceeds to refer to “Sam” and “the boy” as if there’s an omniscient narrator.
Moreover, rather than hiding a structural weakness in the novel, the use of the third person illuminates it: Critical moments — and lots of them — occur when Sam is not present and involve characters who would not (or could not) have told him the story. Among the most obvious scenes are when Boaty negotiates with Sylvan’s father to buy her, and the newlyweds’ first moments of intimacy in Boaty’s bedroom; or when Sylvan meets an African American seamstress and retains her to create her movie star frocks.