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Goodnight, Nebraska by Tom McNeal

Goodnight, Nebraska (1998)

by Tom McNeal

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I'm not sure exactly what I expected from Goodnight, Nebraska, McNeal's debut novel, but it did deliver. In some ways it is another redemptive tale, this time of forgiving yourself, but in other ways it is a bleak, fatalistic novel where, really, in the end everyone has lost something. I do have a few minor quibbles with Goodnight, Nebraska, beyond the inclusion of too many parenthetic comments in the text.

First, in some ways the characters are masterfully drawn, in other ways.... not so much. McNeal examines the weak spots in his character's and that is what we see. Everyone comes across as fatally flawed. I can't help but think, even with all of our flaws, people do have strengths and often those strengths rise way above their flaws. It isn't all bad all the time. I also felt McNeal would introduce characters and then dump them, like Randall's mother and sister, like the coach and his sister, etc.

Second, I really think that a strong case could be made for this novel being closer to a set of short stories featuring many of the same characters. There was a bit too much jumping around and not all of it was beneficial to the story. While the first part of the book set in Utah held my rapt attention, then Randall moved to Nebraska and the story started to shift. The shift wasn't necessarily bad, it just wasn't quite as good as the first part. These shifts continue until the end, in which Goodnight, Nebraska found redemption, as far as my rating is concerned. Rating: 4; http://shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/
( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
YES. ( )
  SFToohey | Apr 2, 2015 |
It was just a'ight for me, dawg.

Oh, but now I know that it's Tom, not Laura, who writes the characters with the goofy dialogue in their novels.

( )
  periwinklejane | Mar 30, 2013 |
I was a bit disappointed with "Goodnight Nebraska", having previously encountered Mr McNeal in his more recent work, "To Be Sung Underwater". "Goodnight, Nebraska" is a story about the sadness of living in a small town in rural America. I'm not averse to sadness in books - in fact I think it's highly desirable because I want my reading to reveal the real world to me . . . and that's essentially sad, isn't it? But there was something about this story that didn't quite work for me. Some parts of it were good, very good at times. But other bits seemed to be just taking up space and I wondered how they fitted in to the story as a whole. I assume there is actually more to this book than I was aware of, and although I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, it is the author's job to make his purpose apparent to almost all readers, even the less intelligent readers such as me. ( )
  oldblack | Dec 4, 2012 |
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. ( )
  nbmars | Oct 4, 2011 |
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Everything comes to him
From the middle of his field. The odor
Of earth penetrates more deeply than any word...
The thought that he had found all this
Among men, in a woman - she caught his breath -
But he came back as one comes back from the sun
To lie on one's bed in the dark, close to a face
Without eyes or mouth, that looks at one and speaks.
--Wallace Stevens
from "Yellow Afternoon"
For Laura

and in memory of Samuel Thompson McNeal
and Barbara Christine Duckworth
First words
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.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375704299, Paperback)

Randall Hunsacker, the protagonist of Tom McNeal's first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, is only 17, but already he has two strikes against him: his father's death when Randall was thirteen led to a succession of "stepfathers" moving through his life and the last one, Lenny, Randall has shot. The shooting, a suicide attempt, and a stint in juvenile hall is what brings Randall to the small town of Goodnight, Nebraska--a place where he hopes to start over. He gets a job, earns a place on the high school football team and even starts dating one of the cheerleaders; things are looking up for Randall. But in a town like Goodnight--Hicksburg, to Randall, or ShitdeVille--what goes up must eventually come down. And so it is for Randall--he gets injured during a football game and his girlfriend, thinking he's dead, announces they are engaged, and before he knows it, he is married, living in a trailer, facing a life that seems to have dead-ended before it even got started.

Appearances can be deceiving, however. To Randall and his wife, Marcy, Goodnight seems like the last place on earth; he never imagined himself coming here, she never stopped dreaming about getting out. Much of McNeal's novel has to do with the gradual disintegration of Randall and Marcy's marriage; at the same time it limns a warm portrait of a middle-American town that may not be very exciting to live in, but one where people know they can count on each other in a pinch. It takes Marcy leaving--and Randall going after her--to finally teach them both that there's really no place like Goodnight.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:20 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A youth's inability to control his temper ruins his life. After shooting a man for sleeping with his mother, Randall Hunsacker leaves Utah for a small town in Nebraska. Things start looking up when he becomes a football hero and marries a local belle, but his temper gets the better of him, he abuses her and she leaves him. A first novel.… (more)

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