"Goodnight, Nebraska," by Tom McNeal. Random House. 311 pages. $23.
What a remarkable debut. Tom McNeal has written a book - and created 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.
"Goodnight, Nebraska," the title of the book, is also the name of the town, home to 1,680 people, the Friendly Festival and, right there at the intersection of Main Street and Highway 20, McKibben's Mobil Station.
Seventeen-year-old Randall Hunsacker has been sent there from Salt Lake City, where he shot his mother's boyfriend and wrecked a stolen car. He has come to finish school, play football, fix cars at McKibben's and get out of Goodnight as quickly as he possibly can.
"Greetings from Hicksburg," he writes his sister. And: "Greetings from the bumpkin patch." And: "If a wart was a town you'd call it Goodnight."
Like many before him, Randall underestimates the powerful force a small town exerts on its young. It's like gravity. He has the same chance of leaving Goodnight as a thrown baseball has of not falling to Earth. Just because all the roads lead out of town doesn't mean you'll have courage enough to go.
As Randall himself explains, "When I was living outside of Salt Lake, a kid up the hill from us 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 75 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."
Goodnight becomes Randall's home. He marries Marcy Lockhardt, the prettiest girl in school, and soon becomes as predictable, ordinary and soul-dead as every other man in town. Too soon, actually; one of the book's few flaws is that we never understand why Randall succumbs to the mundane so readily. Maybe it's like everything else in Goodnight. Ennui happens.
If the men are brutes, the town's women are basket cases, trapped by longing and desire they know will never be satisfied. Marcy's mother, Dorothy, looks at her dull but dependable husband and tries to remember how she once felt.
"All that was left was a memory of a sensation, which, instead of making you feel different, merely reminded you of how you ought to feel but don't."
Yet this is not, ultimately, a depressing book. The characters are too real, their dreams and problems too understandable to write them off as hopeless losers. This is Tom McNeal's great skill. He has avoided the scorn of Sinclair Lewis and the sentiment of Garrison Keillor toward small-town life. This is a nonjudgmental book. It feels more like journalism than fiction.
He gets everything exactly right. He understands that nothing that happens in a small town is ever secret, that somebody always sees, that somebody always knows.
The writing is lyrical, dark, brooding. Think of Pete Dexter. One mean man has the "flushed, pleased look of a bully who just won a fistfight." You could hear "the low coke-bottle whistle of wind through tall trees." When Randall crawls under his house, the silence "was as deep and complete and discomposing as cave silence. It seemed to compress so tightly that it suspended Randall within it. For a long moment he couldn't move."
This is what life in Goodnight can feel like, too. The quilt that makes one person safe and comfortable can suffocate someone else. These are old themes. Tom McNeal has given them a fresh and welcome voice.
Ken Fuson, a staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years, much of that time he worked at the Des Moines Register.
Pub Date: 3/01/98