Approximately Heaven

Approximately Heaven

5.0 1
by James Whorton Jr.

From prizewinning short story writer James Whorton, Jr., Approximately Heaven is a marvelously rambunctious debut novel about one hapless man's pursuit of happiness — or at least another six-pack. Preferably both.
Don "Wendell" Brush is an unemployed 32-year-old Tennessee electrician who likes a few beers before lunch. Mary, his long-suffering wife


From prizewinning short story writer James Whorton, Jr., Approximately Heaven is a marvelously rambunctious debut novel about one hapless man's pursuit of happiness — or at least another six-pack. Preferably both.
Don "Wendell" Brush is an unemployed 32-year-old Tennessee electrician who likes a few beers before lunch. Mary, his long-suffering wife, has decided to leave him, but Don, heartsick at the thought, beats her out the door. He reasons that if he leaves, Mary will have to stay behind in their ramshackle house to take care of their dog and cat. At least he'll know where she is. Out on the street with nothing to do until he can think of a way to win another chance with Mary, Don decides to take a road trip with his friend Dove Ellender, a retired, chain-drinking ex-felon with emphysema who is driving to Mississippi to deliver some furniture. If there's something else in the trailer, Don isn't asking and Dove's not telling.

Editorial Reviews
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Road trips have always made great fiction, whether in classics like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or more contemporary tales like Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here. Now the fresh voice of James Whorton Jr. adds a new dimension to the road-trip genre with his fiction debut: the quirky, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable Approximately Heaven.

This trip begins in Tennessee, where 32-year-old Don Brush is forced to face the reality that his life is falling apart. An unemployed electrician, Don lives in a deteriorating house he never gets around to fixing, and he wakes up one Saturday morning to find that his wife is packing up and heading out -- for good. Concerned that once she leaves she'll never return, Don offers to leave instead. With nowhere to go, he decides to join Dove, an acquaintance, on a road trip south to Mississippi.

Filled with wrong turns, cheap eats, and lots of beer, the story spins out as Don and Dove ponder their own and each other's disappointing lives, remaining uncommonly good-humored as they plot their course for a better future. With Approximately Heaven, newcomer Whorton screeches onto the literary scene, delivering a novel that's approximately a laugh a page, and in total, a sometimes hangdog, often unsparing, yet eternally upbeat modern-day adventure. (Summer 2003 Selection)

The New York Times
James Whorton Jr. loads his narrative with enough bars, tough waitresses and cigarettes to fill a Merle Haggard boxed set. He understands Don's world pretty well -- it's a place where one drinks not so much for fun but because it's ''pre-emptive of nonfun.'' … In the end, though, both the story and the hero are so entertaining that you overlook the problems because the ride is so much fun. — Mary Elizabeth Williams
"A jim-dandy first novel: James Whorton's road-rambling, beer-guzzling, lost-souled rednecks are good narrative company indeed." -
John Barth, author of The Sot-weed Factor
Publishers Weekly
Rambling and low-key, this debut novel takes its bumbling, chronically bewildered narrator from a life as an electrician-cum-handyman in a small Tennessee town to a series of adventures on the open road. When Don's wife of seven years threatens to leave him, he decides the only way to make her stay is to leave himself-he's sure she won't abandon their dog and cat. Luckily, his friend Dove, a fellow working stiff, is about to set off for Mississippi to deliver a load of furniture to his newly married daughter, Rhonda. On their junket, Dove and Don meet an assortment of semitrustworthy women, gamble in Biloxi and drink a lot of cheap beer, ending many evenings in a drunken stupor. Various revelations are made along the way-the whereabouts of a stash of $38,000; Dove's plans for a gun he has brought along-but Whorton makes little effort to build ordinary suspense. As a neo-picaresque road novel, the book relies on the charms of Don's befuddled, countrified voice. The curious flatness of his narration jives well with his numbed state, but deflects the reader with its string of uninflected observations. Whorton knows his poverty-stricken settings well, bringing us into them with believable understatement, but the territory he plumbs-the redneck underbelly of America, with its cheap diners, seedy motels and run-down businesses-has been examined more poignantly before. Even the surprise ending, in which Don destroys the symbolic prized possession of his former life, seems canned and provides little satisfaction. (July 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut about a man’s wanderings in the wake of a failed marriage. "But in the nonmedical sense depression means, for me anyway, having the feeling that something you deserve has been taken away from you." Don’s wife, Mary, wants to leave him because they have a crappy house and it doesn’t look like they’ll ever make a decent home together. Don convinces her to stay while he leaves himself to wander around his hometown for a bit, messing with the likes of Walter and Dove, good old boys who paint trucks with sparkly bicycle paint. Still in love with Mary, Don nevertheless decides to go on a journey with Dove to Mississippi—the two have adventures with dead opossums, pirate ships, casinos, lesbian erotica, and they have accidental conversations on whether they or anyone they know has a soul. They work out bits of nagging rhetoric: "Should I make a new rule not to ever drive when I’m drinking? Everyone knows it’s not good. But on the other hand, how would I get places if I didn’t drive?" Wharton seems to be shooting for the zany southern minimalism of an old instructor: Frederick Barthelme. But while comic in spots and sad in others, he has yet to master that most specialized of subgenres. The nonsequential here that is meant to simulate a world of similarly fractured narrative seems just as often disorganized, and we’re never sure why Don or we have been dragged along on this adventure. In the end, even if Don saves his wife but loses his house, the message fails to jibe convincingly with its own anti-meaning: "But if almost making you was not enough, and you aren’t quite fully real, then my fondness for you is also not real. Or else it is a joke, which makes me a joke as well." A talentwhose best work lies ahead.
From the Publisher
The New York Times An alcoholic picaresque adventure of hangovers, hotel rooms, suspicious piles of cash and Johnny Rivers tunes. The ride is so much fun.

Booklist The incredibly loopy humor and sweetly addled characters in this first novel make it one of the funniest books of the season.

Los Angeles Times Whorton's novel delivers a mischievous and heartfelt message: If you keep taking wrong turns, you might just end up where you've always belonged.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.74(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt


IT WAS A SATURDAY MORNING and I was up early and on the front porch, getting ready to slice a tomato and eat it. The dog was looking up at me like he wanted some and I reminded him, “You don’t like tomatoes.”

I had heard nothing from Mary all morning. I concluded she must be sleeping in, so when she finally came downstairs and stepped out on the porch, I thought it would be good fun to provoke her a little. I told her she ought not to lie in bed so late, because it made her eyes puffy as though she had been crying.

“I wasn’t lying in bed,” she said. “I was packing.”


“I’m moving out, Don,” she said.

I had not expected this. I knew there were certain aspects of things that she was not happy about, but I did not know we had reached an emergency stage. I said, “Mary, wait and let’s talk about this.” She shook her head no and said she had already thought it through and wasn’t changing her mind. I said indignantly, “But I haven’t thought it through.”

“You don’t have to think it through,” she said. “I’m leaving, and that’s it.”

I studied her face, trying to understand what was happening, and my indignation began to wilt when I noticed how her jaw jutted, as I had seen it do many times before when she had made up her mind to get through some chore that she was dreading. Two things occurred to me: one that she was serious, and two that I loved her more than I knew what to do with.

I began to fall apart and believe that she was right and must go. Here was Mary, my wife of seven years, an attractive person with her sharp, serious eyes, and as smart as anybody, and tough, and at times humorous, and simply admirable in all respects. In contrast, here I was, a person of ordinary talents, at present unemployed, and not especially ambitious to improve, and really not mindful of anything in the world on that morning outside of my tomato that I had been planning to eat, and my knife that I had planned to slice it with. I had found the knife to be slightly dull, and so my whetstone was there too on the table like an emblem of my inability to get on with things. I told Mary that she was completely right and something had to change. She deserved better, and I was the one at fault.

Whatever would make her happy was what we needed to do next, I said. Looking back, I would call this a moment of pure selflessness on my part, except that it was only a moment, which makes me question its purity.

Mary sat down with me at the table. It was a former cable spool and she had polyurethaned the top of it. She pulled off her glasses and wiped them with the paper towel that my tomato had been resting on. Without her glasses she looks very vulnerable.

“I want you to be happy,” I said.

“So do I.”

“I won’t be happy if you’re not happy,” I said. “I love you, and so therefore I want whatever is best for you.”

She considered that and smiled. She put her glasses back on. She said, “But that’s not really true, Don.”

I said, “Well I want it to be true, and I intend for it to be true in the future. If you’re not happy, I’m not happy. That’s the program.”

“I’m seeing a lawyer on Monday,” she said.

“A lawyer? What for?”

There was more staring at each other now.

I said, “Look. I thought you were talking about moving out temporarily. That’s what you just said, I think. Monday’s a little abrupt to be seeing a lawyer, Mary.”

She didn’t speak. I stood up. I looked at the top of her head by the part in her hair, where there was a small stubbly spot. I had dropped a blob of SeamerMate in her hair when she was helping me with the gutter, and it’d had to be cut out with scissors. It was a small thing that would not have been very noticeable, had you not known where it was and had you not been standing directly over her head. There were so many reasons why I loved her! I reached to touch the stubbly spot, and she got up and went into the house.

“Monday is too soon to see a lawyer!” I said.

I followed her upstairs and saw her open bag on the bed with her clothes folded in it. It was only her overnight bag. She stood at the clothes rack by the wall. Her hanging clothes were on this rack made of pipe because we were remodeling, and I had torn out the closets upstairs. She pulled out a suit of hers and said, “Where is the hanging bag?”

“I don’t know where it is,” I said. “Somewhere.”

She spun around and knocked her bare foot on the corner of a computer that was sitting in the floor beside the bed. The computer had not been plugged in for a couple of years. It was an old desktop computer from when they were still making all the cases out of metal. Mary swore and picked up her foot, and I took the suit from her.

I put my hand on her shoulder to steady her, and with my other hand I hung her suit back on the end of the rack. “You can leave this here for the time being,” I said.

“My foot is bleeding,” she said, and she went downstairs. I looked at her bag on the bed, and something happened. I became alarmed and also distracted. It was panic. I picked through the clothes in the bag to see what all she was taking with her, and I wondered if she had a damned boyfriend. I went downstairs to the bathroom, where she was getting a Band-Aid. I said, “Have you got a boyfriend?”


“Let me move out, and you stay here in the house,” I said.

“You can forget that idea,” she said. “This house is making me batty.”

She went to throw the Band-Aid wrapper away, but the wastebasket was crammed full. She shook the wrapper at me and then flung it. It fluttered sideways into the tub. “I’m fed up!” she said.

“If the house is the problem, we can fix that,” I said.

“Get out of the doorway, please!”

“Look here,” I said. I ran up the stairs and into the bedroom, and in one move I lifted the computer, monitor, and keyboard in a stack from the carpet. I carried them downstairs. This wasn’t an easy feat.

“Look, I’m throwing this out,” I said. I got the door open and carried the computer outside, and I set it in the back of my truck. Then I went back inside the house, looking for more.

“I wish you had thrown that computer out a long time ago,” Mary said.

“I know it,” I said. I ran upstairs and started the vacuum. Mary came up and told me to stop vacuuming. I pretended not to hear her. She went back down the stairs, and I unpacked her bag and put her clothes back in the dresser while the vacuum was running.

I paused to consider the carpet. It was striped in shades of purple, blue, and magenta. It wasn’t a nice choice, and it had not been professionally installed. It had come with the house. Also, I noticed, the bed sagged, and the headboard did not line up with the windowsill because of a slope in the floor. One pane in the bottom sash of the window was cracked and had been repaired by me some time ago with a yellowish piece of strapping tape. It occurred to me that if I honestly wanted to be kind to my wife, I would encourage her to spend a few nights in a nice motel room. That troubled me, because I did want to be kind. But what I wanted even more than that was for her to not leave me, ever.

And I had the feeling, the more I paused and considered my surroundings, that if she once made the break and left this house, it would be very hard to ever talk her back into it. The house had many problems, entirely apart from the people who lived in it. Outside of the house it was a big world, and a person with my wife’s merits would soon find new challenges and ways to spend time with more interesting people than myself. I would be left alone in the house then, with the carpet and without Mary.

I vacuumed. I tidied all the boxes of our stuff as well as possible -- they were boxes that had not been unpacked in two years -- and I gathered some scraps of lumber that had been lying about upstairs. After calling a warning, I tossed them from the window into the grass. I had been meaning to do this for weeks. I ran back down the stairs and past Mary, who was sitting on the sofa in her silent Indian Chief mode, holding the cat. I ran out the front door and moved all the lumber from where it had landed in the yard to the barn across the road. I was careful not to block the lawn mowers, but otherwise I was just adding junk to the pile that already included sheets of roof metal and parts of broken farm implements from before our time. It was a hazard but now was not the time to worry about it. I strode back into the house and washed the dishes. I got a headache. We were out of aspirin, so I took a beer from the fridge and drank it at the sink, though it was earlier in the day than I would normally have a beer. It was about ten, I guess.

I heard Mary on the stairs, and then I heard her walking above me and then walking back and stepping down the stairs again. She came into the kitchen. “Where are my clothes?” she said. “What did you do with the clothes that were in my bag?”

“I put them away,” I said. “I thought you were staying now.”

“I never said I was staying.”

“Well, stay, and I’ll go.”

“No, I’m going,” she said. She ran back upstairs, and I heard her pulling open dresser drawers.

I went out to my truck and left.


I DROVE TO THE LOCAL DUMP. This was in Washington County, Tennessee, and we didn’t have garbage pickup on our road. I backed my truck up to a bin and climbed into the bed to get the computer. I could have lifted the pieces out from the ground, but it was my intention to throw the computer into the bin from the greatest height possible. Then I noticed that the next bin down was almost empty and had a large clear spot on the floor of it, which would make for a good smash when the computer hit. So I got out of the truck bed and back in the cab and pulled up alongside the next bin. These were twenty-five-foot garbage bins that were hauled in and out on tractor-trailers.

There was an attendant, a man employed by Washington County to police the dumping. When I saw him start my way I got mad, because I had a history with this man. Once he had refused to let me throw out some concrete reinforcing wire there. I ended up making it into tomato cages, which was more trouble than it was worth. Anyway, he came over with his long mop handle that he always carried and poked it into the back of my truck and said, “What’s the matter with that?”

“It’s old,” I said.

“Don’t it work?”

“I don’t know. It hasn’t been plugged in in two years.” I was standing in the bed of my truck again, and I lifted the computer, which as I said had a metal case and was rather heavy, over my head as though I was Mighty Joe Young.

“Wait, wait, wait,” the attendant said, and he rapped with his mop handle on the top of the bed wall of my truck.

I said, “Watch my truck, will you, bud?”

He stepped back and looked at my truck, which was a white Toyota and more or less beat all to hell. It was a work truck. He said, “Reckon I scratched the paint?”

I set the computer down and said, “Look, it’s my truck.” My face got hot.

He tilted his head at the computer and said, “Tell me, how could a man know if that thing works?”

“First he’d have to give a damn,” I said. “But I don’t, and this is my computer, and so therefore I’m going to smash it right now.”

“No, you’re not,” he said. “I’ll take it, and I’ll see can I get some use out of it.” He leaned into the back of the truck, picked up the keyboard, and turned it over.

I said, “I pay property taxes in this county.”

“Help me carry this over to the office, please,” he said. “I’m afraid I might drop it.”

It was a pretty day out. It was sunny, but not too sunny -- some white fluffy clouds were moving briskly so that the sun got broken up now and then. Even a miserable mood can be partly dispelled if the weather is pleasant. This is frustrating, because sometimes a person doesn’t want his bad mood to go away. Past the five-foot chain-link fence that enclosed the dump, I noticed two silver guinea fowl standing in some high grass, looking. Their heads were light blue.

I sat down on the wall of the truck bed to have a few breaths. The man asked me where the cables were at for the computer, and I told him they were at my house in a shoe box.

He would need to have them from me, he said, and also any software that went with the computer. I told him that was going to be a problem, because I would not be going back to my house for a while.

He said, “That’s all right, bring them when you come by tomorrow.”

“I’m not coming by tomorrow,” I said. “I’ve temporarily left my wife. I’m not going back to the house.”

He looked up into my eyes now, I guess for the first time since he’d walked over. His eyes were smudgy and didn’t quite point the same direction. He said, “What’s the address?”

It’s strange that I got so hot about this man not letting me smash the computer, since the whole reason I had kept it in the floor at the house for two years was that I was reluctant to throw out something that had once been expensive and might conceivably still be useful to someone somewhere. This would be an example of my own stupidity. At any rate, I did not tell him the address to our house, but I did climb down from the bed and carry the computer across the gravel to his office, which was a small trailer on blocks by the fence, containing a recliner, a desk, a swag lamp, and a refrigerator. I set the computer on the desk where he told me to, and then when we were back outside in the sun he said, “If you want to smash something, smash some of them aluminum cans.”

He had a barrel of cans that he had picked out of the garbage. We walked over and he tipped the barrel and shook some cans out onto the gravel. I started to jump on one of them and he said, “Hold it, fellow,” and set a few of them upright in a row on a pad of smooth concrete. Then he backed up and said, “Now.” I mashed them flat one at a time. There was moderate satisfaction in it. It wasn’t the same as smashing something that isn’t meant to be smashed. After twenty-five or thirty cans, my foot began to hurt in the arch, and I quit. We put the flat cans into another barrel and I took my leave.

Meet the Author

James Whorton Jr. is the author of two other novels, Approximately Heaven and Frankland. A former Mississippian and former Tennessean, he lives in Rochester, New York with his wife and their daughter. He is an Associate Professor of writing and literature at SUNY Brockport.

Brief Biography

Washington County, Tennessee
Date of Birth:
October 21, 1967
Place of Birth:
Greeley, Colorado
B.A., University of Southern Mississippi, 1989; Ph.D., University College of Swansea, 1995; M.A., Johns Hopkins, 1993

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