Goodnight, Nebraska

( 8 )

Overview

At the age of 17, Randall Hunsacker shoots his mother's boyfriend, steals a car and comes close to killing himself. His second chance lies in a small Nebraska farm town, where the landmarks include McKibben's Mobil Station, Frmka's Superette, and a sign that says The Wages of Sin is Hell. This is Goodnight, a place so ingrown and provincial that Randall calls it "Sludgeville"-until he starts thinking of it as home.

In this pitch-perfect novel, Tom McNeal explores the currents of...

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Overview

At the age of 17, Randall Hunsacker shoots his mother's boyfriend, steals a car and comes close to killing himself. His second chance lies in a small Nebraska farm town, where the landmarks include McKibben's Mobil Station, Frmka's Superette, and a sign that says The Wages of Sin is Hell. This is Goodnight, a place so ingrown and provincial that Randall calls it "Sludgeville"-until he starts thinking of it as home.

In this pitch-perfect novel, Tom McNeal explores the currents of hope, passion, and cruelty beneath the surface of the American heartland. In  Randall, McNeal creates an outcast whose redemption lies in Goodnight, a strange, small, but ultimately embracing community where Randall will inspire fear and adulation, win the love of a beautiful girl and nearly throw it all away.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"You'll want...to buy copies for all your reading friends—flawless."—San Francisco Chronicle
  
"What a remarkable debut!... 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."—The Denver Post
    
"Deft, touching, and humorous. In the tradition of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Anne Tyler."—The Christian Science Monitor

"McNeal is aware that many more of us will accept the sadness we know than venture out in search of a possibly painful unknown—and he renders such decisions in language whose very plainess feels musical."—The New York Times

"A vivid, tender and thoughtful portrait of a great plains farm town. These sad, secret stories bring out the best of McNeal's writing, and are his finest and most lasting gifts to the reader."—Los Angeles Times

"Completely compelling. A beautifully drawn portrait of a town that at once combines and cradles the people who grow up in it."—National Public Radio

"A strange, bumpy, and memorable trip through small town USA—a compelling journey into the heart of American life."—Redbook

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The downward life trajectory of a youth from a blue-collar family who is unmoored by his father's death and the discovery of his mother's and sister's promiscuity is at the heart of this impressive but flawed first novel. After an impulsive act of violence in the book's opening chapters which contain the narrative's most assured writing, Utah high-school football star and budding mechanic Randall Hunsacker avoids reform school by agreeing to resettle in Goodnight, Nebraska, a tiny community that McNeal evokes with some fine insights into small-town life. There, after first alienating the townspeople and confirming his role of outsider, Randall becomes, in a stroke of bizarre good fortune, a minor hero and soon marries the town belle, Marcy Lockhardt. Randall's subsequent behavior, though arising from his wounded and distrustful nature, is less than credible, as he again sabotages his chances. The biggest problem here is that Randall's eventual redemption is too schematic. In fact, there are too many instances in which a events are determined more by contrivances than by credible characterization. McNeal often explains rather than shows his characters' traits with portentous solemnity and adds such explanatory statements as "in other words," and other clumsy parenthetical asides. These awkward devices, and McNeal's attempt to broaden the narrative by interweaving the lives of many members of the Goodnight community, result in a lack of focus. Yet McNeal is a talented writer, and there are enough affecting characters and moving scenes in this novel to bode well for his future books.
Library Journal
Seventeen-year-old Randall Hunsacker gets off a bus in the flyspeck town of Goodnight, Nebraska, convinced that he'll be gone in a year or so. He has come from Salt Lake City, where he has shot his mother's boyfriend and totaled a stolen car. Randall is in Goodnight only through the intercession of his high school football coach, who has talked the Goodnight coach into becoming Randall's guardian. Randall plays bone-crunching kamikaze football, hangs around with the wrong crowd, and falls in love with Marcy Lockhardt, senior class president, honor student, and cheerleader. The story of their marriage, and that of Marcy's parents, explores the small, unremarkable moments on which lives and loves turn for better or worse, for life or death. A fine first novel worthy of your consideration. --Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
Albert Mobilio
Tom McNeal's first novel, "Goodnight, Nebraska," delivers us deep into that part of the heartland where just-plain-folks go quietly stir-crazy, even as they're cheerily waving "Howdy" from their pickup trucks....it remains haunting in its descriptive details. --Albert Mobilio, The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The intensity of desperation in the American heartland marks this first novel by McNeal, as married life for a young Nebraska couple proves rocky, and even rockier for the bride's long-married parents. When Randall Hunsacker's father died and his mother moved herself and her two children in with her lover, who was also sleeping with Randall's sister Louise, something in the boy snapped. After shooting loverboy and trying to kill himself, this 17-year-old has a future that's none too bright—especially when his family moves away from Utah, leaving him behind in the hospital—except that his football coach finds him a second chance in Goodnight, on the Nebraska panhandle, where he can start fresh. Soon a star player with a rep for toughness, Randall, in his solitude and strangeness, fascinates the local beauty, Marcy Lockhardt, who takes him as her secret lover, then pledges herself to him openly as he lies on the field dying after a heart-stopping tackle. Miraculously, though, he recovers, and the two wed, only to grow quickly apart thanks to Randall's lack of direction. When he lashes out at Marcy in anger, causing irreparable harm to her sight, she packs up and heads to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Marcy's folks have entered a turbulent time too, when her long-unhappy mom finally goes to bed with a sweet-talking irrigation-pipe salesman who then wheedles from her the nest egg she'd saved to send Marcy to college. He soon vanishes, and while Randall and Marcy are patching things up—he having persuaded her to come home, and both of them having been persuaded to move to the Lockhardt farmit's the beginning of the end for the folks. Some honest, delicately formed moments here aretarnished by episodes of wildly outrageous plotting, from the playing-field Lazarus ploy to the tangential carving up of a gay Indian caught in flagrante by Goodnight's good old boys.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375704291
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 817,616
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom McNeal lives in Fallbrook, CA.

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Read an Excerpt

The Supernormalist

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. The screech of fires, followed by the acrid and-to Randall's nose-exhilarating odor of burnt rubber, was an everyday occurrence. Randall himself hoped that one of these cars would spin out and perhaps roll over. He didn't exactly hope for human carnage, but he knew that in such cases it was sometimes unavoidable. Occasionally, if he was alone as a car passed by, Randall would make the ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunking sounds he imagined a rolling car would produce.

When a Buick Riviera carrying two people actually did miss the curve, Randall was disappointed he was not there to see it. It was an early July evening. He and his father were working late, painting somebody's guest house in Federal Heights. His mother had already begun her shift at the Ten Pin. His sister, Louise, was in the back of the house with a girlfriend, sitting at the kitchen table, thumbing through TV Guide and Glamour, talking about boys and haircuts. The man driving the Buick Riviera missed the curve completely, shot pell-mell up the embankment and without braking slammed through the spindly posts that supported the front porch, which dropped like a table leaf.

By the time Louise and her girlfriend rushed out the back door and came sliding down the bank, the driver, an oil man from Wyoming, and his passenger, a young woman wearing Levi's and dangly silver earrings, were laughing like maniacs. The driver's comic perspective of the event did not, however, keep him from filing legal actions one week later against Wasatch County and the builder of the house and Randall's parents for approval, construction and occupancy of a substandard structure within the county's required building setback. (In regard to the county, there were several ancillary charges involving such things as "inadequate signage precedent to a mortifyingly dangerous curve.")

From August to December, while this matter inched toward resolution, Randall's family entered the house either by scrambling up the side of the hill and coming around back or by climbing an ancient extension ladder to the front door (to improve stability, Randall's father strapped the ladder to stakes at its base and to the house above, but nonetheless, at its midsection, the ladder had the unnerving feel of a suspension bridge).

"An oil man, out sightseeing with a girl half his age, knocks out your front porch, then sues the bejabbers out of you," Randall's father said to Randall one day out of the blue as they were finishing up a job. He swung his characteristic half grin toward Randall. "Don't ever tell me it ain't a screwy ol' world."

Randall's father was a large, hearty man with a pink scalp edged with just a horseshoe of silky brown hair, a man who smelled pleasantly of sweat and sawdust and cigars, a man who had shed his optimism gradually and with regret. He took on whatever odd jobs turned up, and Randall liked tagging along. Randall carried tools, and ran back to the truck when others were needed. He lugged away whole rolls of old carpet. He mixed perfectly uniform batches of concrete. He painted carefully. He didn't know which came first, his liking the work or being good at it, but both were true. Whenever someone praised Randall, his father always said the same thing. "Yep, he's my little supernormalist," he would say, a reference to a joke he'd heard long ago, and then he would append an explanation: "The boy thinks he can do anything."

In January, Randall's father signed a side agreement proposed by the oil man's insurance company, which held harmless both Randall's father and the driver, and in addition provided Randall's father with a check for $200.00 to cover the direct expenses of buying the piers, posts, planks and paint required to rebuild the porch.

"Two hundred smackers," said Randall's mother in a derisive squeezed-tight voice, and then, turning a bitter smile to Randall and Louise, "Your father finally hit it big."

On the day his father died, Randall had gone ice fishing with a friend. Randall thought of staying home to help with the porch, but his father said that all he was going to do that day anyhow was line up materials and maybe just get started. The meaty part would begin tomorrow. Meantime, his father told him, ice-fishing trips didn't come along just every day.

Louise was the one who found him. Louise was not quite sixteen. Before returning home, she'd spent the afternoon with a girlfriend. When she heard her father's portable radio playing beneath the house, she called out that she was home. "It's me," she said, peering into the dimness. At her girlfriend's house Louise had drunk some cola with rum in it, but whatever giddiness she'd been feeling vanished as she followed the muted sound of the portable radio to the body. She wondered if she ought to try to get to his mouth to do resuscitation, but when she experimentally touched his hand she understood from its stiffened nature that he was dead without doubt. Louise withdrew in stupefaction. She climbed the extension ladder into the house. She washed her hands twice with soap, then she called her mother at the Ten Pin, and informed her of the facts.

By the time Randall got home, they'd removed the body. First the jack and then the cribbing his father had built to support it had given way. He was pinned beneath the timbers. When Randall was alone with Louise, he began asking questions. What did he look like? Did he write anything in the dirt? Louise said maybe he was trying to say something because his mouth was open. His body had already begun to stiffen, she said, and his tongue was gray. From the wild marks in the dirt and the state of his pant legs, his feet had flailed around even while his chest was pinned down. She stopped as if unsure whether to go on.

"What?"

"Nothing," Louise said finally.

"Tell me, Weasel. Tell me what else." (As a child, Randall had called Louise Wheeza, which, at about age ten, he'd altered spitefully to Weasel, which had then undergone a more mysterious translation, from malice to affection.)

"No, that's it," Louise said. "There is nothing else." Randall could see she didn't think he believed her, and he didn't. So she said, "Except it seems like a terrible way to die, without even two minutes to prepare for it."

When he had the chance to slip away, Randall crawled under the house. He thought he might find blood, but he didn't. What he found were the gouges and scrapings in the dirt his father's boots had made. There was no order or pattern to them at all, and it was easy to imagine the violent thrashing of his legs as the house pressed the last air from his father's chest. His father's flashlight lay to the side, switched on, its beam barely visible. The silence under the house was as deep and complete and discomposing as cave silence. It seemed to compress so tightly from all sides that it suspended Randall within it. For a long moment he couldn't move. Finally, as Randall scooched away, he saw something else. A few feet downhill from the scrapes and gouges was the stubby, half-chewed cigar that had been in his father's mouth at the moment the cribbing gave way.

That night Randall lay in bed wondering how he could feel so different. It was as if a hand had reached inside him and taken his heart and begun gently to squeeze. His heart was tender at first, then raw, then it hurt, actually hurt, with every beat. This went on. Even when he awakened in the night from sleep, it was there waiting, the dull, painful, rhythmical throb.

The memorial service was short, with a hired stranger from the mortuary saying words that meant nothing. Besides Randall's sister and mother, the only others in attendance were two waitresses from the Ten Pin. Randall's mother was not herself. Her cynicism had slipped away and left her disoriented. When the service was over, Randall had to touch her elbow and lead her stiffly outside the chapel to join the others standing in the bitter cold. Nobody put his arms around anybody else. No one knew what to say. One of the waitresses said it was the coldest winter she ever remembered and the other waitress said, "Coldest and longest." A silence followed. Randall's mother in a small voice said, "He always joked that he preferred winters like this. He said it helped keep the riffraff out."

Six weeks later, on Randall's fourteenth birthday, his mother laid two identical revolvers on the kitchen table in front of him. "Your father took these in pay from a widow lady and cleaned them all up. The idea was he'd keep one and give you the other for your birthday. He thought you'd both take up partridge hunting or some ridiculous thing." The hardness was gone from his mother's voice; she seemed in fact about to cry. Randall didn't want to see it. He pulled one of the long-barreled pistols closer to him on the table. It was a Ruger-a bird with a dragon's head was set into the wood handle. He lifted the pistol; it felt like three pounds easy. "I'm pawning one," his mother said, "but I thought you might want the other."

Randall shoveled snow for neighbors up and down the canyon, and when he'd earned the money, he bought a gray felt case for the pistol, and slid it into the back of the bottom drawer of his dresser. A month or so later, he bought a box of .44 Magnum cartridges that he arranged neatly next to his father's last half-chewed cigar in a Roi-Tan box that fit snugly beneath a loose floorboard on the back porch.

ii

A few months after the funeral, Randall's mother came home with a man. She didn't introduce him to Randall and Louise. She let the man stand there and do it himself. "I'm Arnold," the man said. Instead of extending a hand, he kept rubbing his scalp. He was a tall man and had just conked his head on the living room chandelier. Randall's mother looked at Arnold and then at Randall and Louise. She seemed at a loss. "Look," she said when Arnold excused himself to use the bathroom. Her voice and manner were wobbly. "Your father's gone now. I wish he wasn't, but he is."

The line of boyfriends was a long one that ended with Lenny. Lenny was four years younger than Randall's mother, but looked younger yet-his face seemed always to have the flushed, pleased look of a bully who's just won a fistfight. He dressed in unbelted Levi's and clean white tee shirts with a thin-width cuff rolled at each sleeve. He reminded Randall of a weird mix of Fonzie from the old TV show and the little killer Perry in a movie he'd seen called In Cold Blood. Lenny had never married, but was engaged a few years before to a woman whose photograph he still carried in his wallet. One night at Hardy's Restaurant, he pulled the picture from its plastic sleeve and laid it on the table before Randall, Louise and their mother. While they regarded the woman in her revealing bathing suit, Lenny talked. "My fiancée had no attention span whatsoever," he said. "'I'm hungry,' she'd say and we'd stop someplace nice and three bites into a plate of spaghetti she'd just let the fork fall from her hands. 'I'm full now,' she'd say."

All at the same time Lenny folded up his wallet, laughed and shook his head. "I like it when a woman knows what she wants, Lenny said, winking at Randall's mother. "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants," and then he said, "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants a little while before she does." This time he winked at Louise.

Louise gave him a look of heartfelt revulsion. Lenny smiled and adjusted the roll on his sleeve until it was just so.

It occurred to Randall that Lenny took pleasure in believing that most people were a little afraid of him. Whenever Lenny flashed his self-pleased smile on Randall, a wet pricklish fear spread over Randall's neck, a fear that brightened Lenny's eyes.

Most of a year passed. Lenny didn't marry Randall's mother, but one Sunday, without much preparation, Randall, Louise and their mother moved into Lenny's house in the Rose Park section of Salt Lake, on the dwindling side of I-15. "My house is like me," Lenny said. "It's big for its size." It was a basic one-story brick house, but Lenny had built his bedroom into the attic and had begun remodeling the basement. This was where Randall and Louise were to sleep. Lenny had installed a tiny corner bathroom with a fiberglass shower enclosure, and had begun separating the rest of the basement into two dismal rooms. He'd framed the dividing wall, but hadn't yet gotten to the insulation or Sheetrock. It felt to Randall like a honeycombed cellar, something you'd normally enter only in a bad dream. Louise tacked up sheets for privacy while Lenny stood by and talked about how cool it was down here in the summer, and how warm it stayed in the winter.

"And I should just think of all the mouse punks as chocolate chips," Louise said, and Lenny, pretending she meant it as funny, laughed hard.

Mornings, Lenny worked out with free weights in the front room, cooked and ate a six-egg omelet and, if the weather was good, washed his truck, all before he went off to work at 7:30. It was a truck, as far as Randall was concerned-but Lenny called it a tractor. He pulled trailer-homes with it, though Lenny liked to call them mo-biles (he elasticized the final syllable, so that it rhymed with trials). Some were fourteen-wides, and some were twenty-fours and twenty-eights that came in two sections. Lenny pulled them into place, set them on piers, made the sewer, electrical and propane connections. The setups formed the core of his work, but the skirtings and awnings were the easy money. Randall didn't offer to go out on jobs with Lenny and Lenny didn't ask. It was Randall's mother who pushed it.

So one wintry day, against his will, Randall found himself bouncing along in the high, closed cab of Lenny's truck, the cassette deck playing gospel music loud. While Lenny drove, Randall shuffled through the plastic cases on the dash. Mahalia Jackson. The Clara Ward Singers. The Gospel Harmonettes.

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Table of Contents

ONE: The Supernormalist 3
TWO: Severance 38
THREE: The New Boy 41
FOUR: Villas in Italy 90
FIVE: Mrs. Lewis Lockhardt 94
SIX: What Letty Hobbs Saw 130
SEVEN: Football Weather 132
EIGHT: The Parmalees' Dog 152
NINE: The Crooked Bridge 154
TEN: Frmka's Market 175
ELEVEN: Tell Me Something 177
TWELVE: Cares and Woes 209
THIRTEEN: The Hunting Party 211
FOURTEEN: Ash 235
FIFTEEN: Winter in Los Angeles 236
SIXTEEN: Grand-Slam Breakfast 261
SEVENTEEN: Yours 264
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First Chapter

THE SUPERNORMALIST

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. The screech of tires, followed by the acrid and--to Randall's nose--exhilarating odor of burnt rubber, was an everyday occurrence. Randall himself hoped that one of these cars would spin out and perhaps roll over. He didn't exactly hope for human carnage, but he knew that in such cases it was sometimes unavoidable. Occasionally, if he was alone as a car passed by, Randall would make the ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunking sounds he imagined a rolling car would produce.

When a Buick Riviera carrying two people actually did miss the curve, Randall was disappointed he was not there to see it. It was an early July evening. He and his father were working late, painting somebody's guest house in Federal Heights. His mother had already begun her shift at the Ten Pin. His sister, Louise, was in the back of the house with a girlfriend, sitting at the kitchen table, thumbing through TV Guide and Glamour, talking about boys and haircuts. The man driving the Buick Riviera missed the curve completely, shot pell-mell up the embankment and without braking slammed through the spindly posts that supported the front porch, which dropped like a table leaf.

By the time Louise and her girlfriend rushed out the back door and came sliding down the bank, the driver, an oil man from Wyoming, and his passenger, a young woman wearing Levi's and dangly silver earrings, were laughing like maniacs. The driver's comic perspective of the event did not, however, keep him from filing legal actions one week later against Wasatch County and the builder of the house and Randall's parents for approval, construction and occupancy of a substandard structure within the county's required building setback. In regard to the county, there were several ancillary charges involving such things as "inadequate signage precedent to a mortifyingly dangerous curve."

From August to December, while this matter inched toward resolution, Randall's family entered the house either by scrambling up the side of the hill and coming around back or by climbing an ancient extension ladder to the front door to improve stability, Randall's father strapped the ladder to stakes at its base and to the house above, but nonetheless, at its midsection, the ladder had the unnerving feel of a suspension bridge.

"An oil man, out sightseeing with a girl half his age, knocks out your front porch, then sues the bejabbers out of you," Randall's father said to Randall one day out of the blue as they were finishing up a job. He swung his characteristic half grin toward Randall. "Don't ever tell me it ain't a screwy ol' world."

Randall's father was a large, hearty man with a pink scalp edged with just a horseshoe of silky brown hair, a man who smelled pleasantly of sweat and sawdust and cigars, a man who had shed his optimism gradually and with regret. He took on whatever odd jobs turned up, and Randall liked tagging along. Randall carried tools, and ran back to the truck when others were needed. He lugged away whole rolls of old carpet. He mixed perfectly uniform batches of concrete. He painted carefully. He didn't know which came first, his liking the work or being good at it, but both were true. Whenever someone praised Randall, his father always said the same thing. "Yep, he's my little supernormalist," he would say, a reference to a joke he'd heard long ago, and then he would append an explanation: "The boy thinks he can do anything."

In January, Randall's father signed a side agreement proposed by the oil man's insurance company, which held harmless both Randall's father and the driver, and in addition provided Randall's father with a check for $200.00 to cover the direct expenses of buying the piers, posts, planks and paint required to rebuild the porch.

"Two hundred smackers," said Randall's mother in a derisive squeezed-tight voice, and then, turning a bitter smile to Randall and Louise, "Your father finally hit it big."

ON THE DAY HIS FATHER DIED, Randall had gone ice fishing with a friend. Randall thought of staying home to help with the porch, but his father said that all he was going to do that day anyhow was line up materials and maybe just get started. The meaty part would begin tomorrow. Meantime, his father told him, ice-fishing trips didn't come along just every day.

Louise was the one who found him. Louise was not quite sixteen. Before returning home, she'd spent the afternoon with a girlfriend. When she heard her father's portable radio playing beneath the house, she called out that she was home. "It's me," she said, peering into the dimness. At her girlfriend's house Louise had drunk some cola with rum in it, but whatever giddiness she'd been feeling vanished as she followed the muted sound of the portable radio to the body. She wondered if she ought to try to get to his mouth to do resuscitation, but when she experimentally touched his hand she understood from its stiffened nature that he was dead without doubt. Louise withdrew in stupefaction. She climbed the extension ladder into the house. She washed her hands twice with soap, then she called her mother at the Ten Pin, and informed her of the facts.

By the time Randall got home, they'd removed the body. First the jack and then the cribbing his father had built to support it had given way. He was pinned beneath the timbers. When Randall was alone with Louise, he began asking questions. What did he look like? Did he write anything in the dirt? Louise said maybe he was trying to say something because his mouth was open. His body had already begun to stiffen, she said, and his tongue was gray. From the wild marks in the dirt and the state of his pant legs, his feet had flailed around even while his chest was pinned down. She stopped as if unsure whether to go on.

"What?"

"Nothing," Louise said finally.

"Tell me, Weasel. Tell me what else." As a child, Randall had called Louise Wheeza, which, at about age ten, he'd altered spitefully to Weasel, which had then undergone a more mysterious translation, from malice to affection.

"No, that's it," Louise said. "There is nothing else." Randall could see she didn't think he believed her, and he didn't. So she said, "Except it seems like a terrible way to die, without even two minutes to prepare for it."

When he had the chance to slip away, Randall crawled under the house. He thought he might find blood, but he didn't. What he found were the gouges and scrapings in the dirt his father's boots had made. There was no order or pattern to them at all, and it was easy to imagine the violent thrashing of his legs as the house pressed the last air from his father's chest. His father's flashlight lay to the side, switched on, its beam barely visible. The silence under the house was as deep and complete and discomposing as cave silence. It seemed to compress so tightly from all sides that it suspended Randall within it. For a long moment he couldn't move. Finally, as Randall scooched away, he saw something else. A few feet downhill from the scrapes and gouges was the stubby, half-chewed cigar that had been in his father's mouth at the moment the cribbing gave way.

That night Randall lay in bed wondering how he could feel so different. It was as if a hand had reached inside him and taken his heart and begun gently to squeeze. His heart was tender at first, then raw, then it hurt, actually hurt, with every beat. This went on. Even when he awakened in the night from sleep, it was there waiting, the dull, painful, rhythmical throb.

The memorial service was short, with a hired stranger from the mortuary saying words that meant nothing. Besides Randall's sister and mother, the only others in attendance were two waitresses from the Ten Pin. Randall's mother was not herself. Her cynicism had slipped away and left her disoriented. When the service was over, Randall had to touch her elbow and lead her stiffly outside the chapel to join the others standing in the bitter cold. Nobody put his arms around anybody else. No one knew what to say. One of the waitresses said it was the coldest winter she ever remembered and the other waitress said, "Coldest and longest." A silence followed. Randall's mother in a small voice said, "He always joked that he preferred winters like this. He said it helped keep the riffraff out."

Six weeks later, on Randall's fourteenth birthday, his mother laid two identical revolvers on the kitchen table in front of him. "Your father took these in pay from a widow lady and cleaned them all up. The idea was he'd keep one and give you the other for your birthday. He thought you'd both take up partridge hunting or some ridiculous thing." The hardness was gone from his mother's voice; she seemed in fact about to cry. Randall didn't want to see it. He pulled one of the long-barreled pistols closer to him on the table. It was a Ruger--a bird with a dragon's head was set into the wood handle. He lifted the pistol; it felt like three pounds easy. "I'm pawning one," his mother said, "but I thought you might want the other."

Randall shoveled snow for neighbors up and down the canyon, and when he'd earned the money, he bought a gray felt case for the pistol, and slid it into the back of the bottom drawer of his dresser. A month or so later, he bought a box of .44 Magnum cartridges that he arranged neatly next to his father's last half-chewed cigar in a Roi-Tan box that fit snugly beneath a loose floorboard on the back porch.

ii

A few months after the funeral, Randall's mother came home with a man. She didn't introduce him to Randall and Louise. She let the man stand there and do it himself "I'm Arnold," the man said. Instead of extending a hand, he kept rubbing his scalp. He was a tall man and had just conked his head on the living room chandelier. Randall's mother looked at Arnold and then at Randall and Louise. She seemed at a loss. "Look," she said when Arnold excused himself to use the bathroom. Her voice and manner were wobbly. "Your father's gone now. I wish he wasn't, but he is."

The line of boyfriends was a long one that ended with Lenny. Lenny was four years younger than Randall's mother, but looked younger yet--his face seemed always to have the flushed, pleased look of a bully who's just won a fistfight. He dressed in unbelted Levi's and clean white tee shirts with a thin-width cuff rolled at each sleeve. He reminded Randall of a weird mix of Fonzie from the old TV show and the little killer Perry in a movie he'd seen called In Cold Blood. Lenny had never married, but was engaged a few years before to a woman whose photograph he still carried in his wallet. One night at Hardy's Restaurant, he pulled the picture from its plastic sleeve and laid it on the table before Randall, Louise and their mother. While they regarded the woman in her revealing bathing suit, Lenny talked. "My fiancee had no attention span whatsoever," he said. "`I'm hungry,' she'd say and we'd stop someplace nice and three bites into a plate of spaghetti she'd just let the fork fall from her hands. `I'm full now,' she'd say."

All at the same time Lenny folded up his wallet, laughed and shook his head. "I like it when a woman knows what she wants," Lenny said, winking at Randall's mother. "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants," and then he said, "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants a little while before she does." This time he winked at Louise.

Louise gave him a look of heartfelt revulsion. Lenny smiled and adjusted the roll on his sleeve until it was just so.

It occurred to Randall that Lenny took pleasure in believing that most people were a little afraid of him. Whenever Lenny flashed his self-pleased smile on Randall, a wet pricklish fear spread over Randall's neck, a fear that brightened Lenny's eyes.

Most of a year passed. Lenny didn't marry Randall's mother, but one Sunday, without much preparation, Randall, Louise and their mother moved into Lenny's house in the Rose Park section of Salt Lake, on the dwindling side of I-15. "My house is like me," Lenny said. "It's big for its size." It was a basic one-story brick house, but Lenny had built his bedroom into the attic and had begun remodeling the basement. This was where Randall and Louise were to sleep. Lenny had installed a tiny corner bathroom with a fiberglass shower enclosure, and had begun separating the rest of the basement into two dismal rooms. He'd framed the dividing wall, but hadn't yet gotten to the insulation or Sheetrock. It felt to Randall like a honeycombed cellar, something you'd normally enter only in a bad dream. Louise tacked up sheets for privacy while Lenny stood by and talked about how cool it was down here in the summer, and how warm it stayed in the winter.

"And I should just think of all the mouse punks as chocolate chips," Louise said, and Lenny, pretending she meant it as funny, laughed hard.

Mornings, Lenny worked out with free weights in the front room, cooked and ate a six-egg omelet and, if the weather was good, washed his truck, all before he went off to work at 7:30. It was a truck, as far as Randall was concerned--but Lenny called it a tractor. He pulled trailer-homes with it, though Lenny liked to call them mo-biles he elasticized the final syllable, so that it rhymed with trials. Some were fourteen-wides, and some were twenty-fours and twenty-eights that came in two sections. Lenny pulled them into place, set them on piers, made the sewer, electrical and propane connections. The setups formed the core of his work, but the skirtings and awnings were the easy money. Randall didn't offer to go out on jobs with Lenny and Lenny didn't ask. It was Randall's mother who pushed it.

So one wintry day, against his will, Randall found himself bouncing along in the high, closed cab of Lenny's truck, the cassette deck playing gospel music loud. While Lenny drove, Randall shuffled through the plastic cases on the dash. Mahalia Jackson. The Clara Ward Singers. The Gospel Harmonettes.

"Two things colored women do better than whites and one is singing," Lenny said over the music and the truck noise, then tossed a goggle-eyed smirk at Randall, who glanced away and felt his neck moisten with sweat.

When they got to the Taggin' Wagon Trailer Park, Randall did what he was told. He crawled headfirst under the trailer, breaking spiderwebs as he went. He bellied about as Lenny, peering in from an access panel, directed. Randall worked the redwood pads into the dirt, set the metal piers on top of the pads, attached the locktops to the I beams. There were places so tight he had to hold his breath to wriggle through.

"Fine," Lenny said that night when Randall's mother asked how he did. They were all riding in Lenny's Subaru--Louise, Randall, their mother and Lenny, who said, "The kid's built perfect for the work. He's like a little salamander." Lenny, as if pleasantly surprised by both the astuteness and sly malignance of this appraisal, let out a sudden laugh. Randall's mother laughed guardedly. They were on their way to the Hi-Spot Lounge. This was the new routine. Lenny had lined up Randall's mother with a day job at a lunch counter so she could have her evenings free. She sat up front with a pizza box in her lap while Louise and Randall sat in back. "How about you?" Randall's mother said, turning to him in the back. "How did you like it?"

Randall, who'd hated the day, didn't know what to say. Louise seemed to sense this. "Who cares how the retard liked it?" she said so he wouldn't have to respond.

When they got to the bar, Randall's mother passed the pizza back to him and Louise. Do all your homework, she said, and, Louise, you help Randall when you're done with your own. Some of this was genuine concern, but Randall sensed that the sickishly sweet flavor of it was introduced for Lenny's benefit. Louise opened the pizza box and said, "Fatty meat? You ordered a fatty-meat pizza? After you knew I was vegetarian now?"

Lenny and their mother strolled across the parking lot toward the bar.

"Did you even look at this fatty-meat grease?" Louise screamed at them from the backseat.

Once Lenny and their mother disappeared into the Hi-Spot Lounge, Randall climbed into the front seat, ate and then just waited until Louise was done with her work so the light would go out. He liked it with the light off and one of Lenny's tapes turned low, as if the women's voices were coming from somewhere friendly and warm and just a little ways off. Sometimes Randall and Louise would doze and, upon reawakening, talk in ways they never otherwise would.

"I dream about him all the time," Randall said, of his father. "Just now I dreamed I was working with him under a house and I kept scooching close so I could smell him and be sure he was really there. What's weird was, I could smell him. In the dream I was smelling his smell."

Randall could feel Louise staring at him in the dark. "Was it a good dream though?" she said.

"Yeah, it was. It was like he'd been here for a visit."

After a little while Louise changed subjects. "Know why we have to stay in this car and can't stay alone in Lenny's house? Because Lenny's afraid we'll steal his things, I heard him telling Mom."

"What things?" Randall said.

"That's what makes it so hilarious. Lenny doesn't have anything worth stealing. So here we are, doing our homework in a Subaru."

The first week or so of their evenings in the car, Randall's mother came out periodically to check up on them, but as these evenings accumulated, she visited Randall and Louise less and less. They got used to spending the nights alone in the Subaru, Randall generally in the front seat, Louise in the back. One night, Louise got out of the car and came back with cigarettes, which she and Randall smoked.

The next night Louise said he could come along on the cigarette run if he wanted. She went to a car with the window down, leaned in and riffled the glove compartment. She did this three or four times before heading back to the Subaru with cigarettes, several dollars in change, a Star Wars pocketknife and a dirty magazine. "All the good stuff must be in the locked ones," she said. The magazine was called Raunch. She held it out in one hand, the pocketknife in the other. "Your choice, kiddo."

Randall took the magazine, but after looking through it wished he'd taken the pocketknife. "Can I trade back, Weasel?"

To his surprise, Louise let out a laugh and slid the pocketknife onto the back of the seat. "I overindulge you, Randallkins," she said.

A week later, he'd forgotten this favor. Louise, bored from sitting in the car, wanted her back scratched. This was a familiar request. She would stretch out on the backseat and roll up her shirt to the shoulder blades. That was all right, but she made Randall undo the brassiere, too, which gave him a funny feeling. "Naw," he said.

Louise sighed and offered a number of bribes, all of which Randall declined. She'd found a box of Dots in somebody's car and studied one now for freshness. "Okay," she said, popping a black candy into her mouth, "how about if I explain to you what fellatio is?"

"What's that?"

"Only a certain kind of sex act every youth ought to know about."

Randall thought it over and shook his head. Finally she said, "So what if I tell you something I never told you about the body when I found it?"

Randall was suspicious. "Like what?"

"You'll scratch my back if I tell you?"

They sat in the dark for a while. There were crickets working and from somewhere a woman's high laugh carried. "Yeah," Randall said.

"He peed his pants."

All at once Randall closed up into himself. "I just knew you were going to say some big fat lie like that."

"He did though," Louise said. "Peeing his pants was one of the last things in the world your father ever did. I saw it. It's also on the medical report if you'd care to look it up, under Other Observations. It says, `Deceased's trousers damp with urine.'"

Randall slid down to the floor and snugged up under the seat. If he could find a certain position, he fit there like a foot in a slipper. In a sulky voice he said, "He was your father, too."

Louise in a low serious voice said, "No, he wasn't," and thereafter rushed on as if she'd just gotten over a barbed-wire fence. "She's my mother, I'm sorry to say, but there were so many men she herself couldn't say who my father or yours was. You look like him. You feel bad about him. So I guess he's your father. But I've decided he was definitely not mine."

Randall, inhaling, flattened himself against the car floor. "How do you know there were other men who might be our father?"

"How do you think?"

"I don't know," Randall said. "Why don't you tell me?"

"I saw. With my own two eyes. In our own house. While you and your father were off on some odd job."

Randall lay quietly in the dark. His fingers came upon something on the floor, something small and flat, a Necco wafer maybe, or a metal slug. He laid it on his tongue--its taste was faintly oily--then he swallowed it whole.

iii

Two years later, sitting in Mrs. Ky's study hall located in the old home ec room of West High, Randall discovered Anna Belknap. For a while she was simply one of several girls he furtively observed. Then, one windy afternoon in October, with shadowy light playing at the high windows, Anna Belknap, while doing her trigonometry, took the back of her hand and lifted her long brown hair away from her white neck, and held it there until the lacy, creamy yellow light teased across her skin. Then, letting her hair fall, Anna Belknap turned and tossed a quick, coltish glance toward Randall.

Randall and his father had once painted a house for a man who owned a dog and a rabbit. The rabbit lived in a long low hutch behind the garage and the dog spent its days watching the rabbit. The rabbit munched carrots and rattled around her cage, oblivious to the dog, but the dog was haunted. It was like a spell, and he became almost a statue of a dog, absolutely still, staring longingly at the rabbit, unable to pry his eyes away. This was how Randall felt while watching Anna Belknap, like that enchanted dog.

Each day as he walked into study hall, Randall's heart seemed to lodge between his ears, where it pounded so fiercely he wondered that others couldn't hear it. Mrs. Ky, the proctor, was an older, full-bosomed woman whose successful management style boiled down to vigilantly presuming the worst.

Randall sat near the center of the room, bent forward with his arm curled under his neck and over his shoulder, staring past his grammar book at Anna Belknap. He knew almost nothing about her, except that she wore nice clothes and was in college French classes and went with a Mormon tennis type named Jason Wilson. One of Randall's favorite daydreams involved his coming upon a car wreck in which Jason Wilson had already perished, but when Randall, with unexplainable strength, raised the car by himself, Anna Belknap miraculously wriggled free, looking very shaken and grateful and beautiful, although her blouse was badly torn.

"Mr. Han-zicker!" Mrs. Ky's sharp voice split the stillness. "You have a book on your desk, correct? Then that is where your eyes belong!"

Nearby sniggers, made mean by boredom. Randall's skin blazed and, for one long moment, Anna Belknap turned her complacent, creamy-smooth face his way.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How and when was the pattern set for Louise's wild and self-destructive life? Why is she unable to break out of this pattern, while Randall, ultimately, is?

2. Why is Randall so affected by the joke about the supernormalist, remembering it at intervals throughout his life? What might it mean to him? Do you agree with Marcy's interpretation of it [p. 88]?

3. How does Randall's experience with Anna Belknap pave the way for his attraction to Marcy? What does Randall look for in a girl? How does he define love, and how does he modify this definition as he grows up?

4. Was Randall's staged accident in Salt Lake City a deliberate suicide attempt? If not, what might he have been trying to bring about? How does this car accident parallel and echo the car accident at the end of the novel?

5. After the accident, Randall's right hand, with its missing fingers, is permanently deformed. Why does the author continue to remind us of this deformity throughout the book? What other characters have some sort of deformity, either physical or emotional? How are all these wounds connected?

6. Why does Randall behave in such a self-destructive fashion for so many years, even though he clearly craves love and acceptance? What unresolved issues in his past contribute to this behavior?

7. If Lucy Witt had not found Randall's letters, or if Lewis had not thought he overheard Randall making the crude joke in the bar, might Randall have found his way more easily and happily in Goodnight? Or would other, similar incidents have arisen? Do his early problems stem from the prejudices of the townspeople, or from his own behavior?

8. Why is Marcy dissatisfied with Bobby Parmalee, and why is she so strongly attracted to Randall when she first gets to know him? How does she justify to herself her decision to sleep with him? Why does she decide to marry him? Was it a decision taken for the wrong reason?

9. Why do both Dorothy and Lewis instinctively act to save the life of Randall, the boy they think they hate?

10. Randall tells Marcy about a memory from his childhood: "A kid up the hill 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 seventy-five 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" [p. 197]. Later Marcy is reminded of this when Dorothy suggests that Marcy and Randall move back to the farm. How does this story reflect Marcy's life? Randall's? Other characters in the novel? Who breaks out of this mold, and in what way?

11. Why does Dorothy become so extremely depressed and restless at this particular moment in her life? Might her problems have been triggered by Marcy's defection to Randall, with the abandonment of any dreams that Marcy, or her parents, might have had for her future? What might Dorothy's own dreams have been for herself?

12. When Dorothy asks Lewis what he believes in he says "Me. I believe in me" [p. 126]. How does Lewis's character shape and affect his life? As a reader, how do your feelings toward Lewis change and develop as the novel progresses? Who has a more practical philosophy of life, Lewis or Dorothy? Which proves more resilient in the end?

13. Why does the author devote so much space to the pheasant hunting trip? What does it tell us about the lives of men in this culture? How do the day's events change Meteor Frmka's life? How do they change Randall's?

14. What sort of statement, if any, does Goodnight, Nebraska make about small-town life? Does life in Goodnight, as McNeal depicts it, seem impossibly claustrophobic, or is it attractive? What must one give up to live in a community like Goodnight, and what does one gain?

15. Randall, in coming to Goodnight, and Marcy, in going to Los Angeles, both hope to "start over." What do their experiences tell us about starting over? Is it ever really possible to do so?

16. Every young person has ambitions and dreams; every older person has been to some degree disabused of them. How do the characters in this novel come to terms with or modify their dreams? What does Marcy hope for herself at the beginning, and what does she feel she can hope for by the end? What about Dorothy and Lewis? What does it mean, in Goodnight, to have "prospects"?

17. How do patterns of behavior, of love and marriage, of achievement, repeat themselves from generation to generation among characters in this novel like the Hunsackers, the Lockhardts, the Parmalees, the Frmkas? How do parents' mistakes and decisions affect the decisions their children will eventually make? How hard is it to break these patterns, and who succeeds in doing so? Is it more difficult to break this type of pattern in a small town like Goodnight than it might be in a larger and more diverse society?

18. Broadly outlined, Goodnight, Nebraska could be described as Randall Hunsacker's search for redemption. How successful is this search, in the end?

19. Do you believe that a place or a community molds its inhabitants in its own image? If so, how would you describe Goodnight and its citizens?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 23, 2011

    Recommended.

    I liked this book. Good story, believable characters, steady pace. All in all, a very satisfying read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2006

    FABULOUS could not put it down

    captivating in its description and unexpeted in its turns, I was pulled along and lived with these people for all too brief a time Contrary to the more professional reviewers, the twists and happenings mimic authentic lives and also Nebraskans accept and move on outlook

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommend!

    A disturbingly peaceful story. Isolated and lonely like the setting of the book in western Nebraska. This book would appeal to deeply introspective readers who are willing to look into their own isolated places in the heart. I would definitely read McNeal's other works. Yes, I would recommend this to bookclubs.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2010

    Enjoyed this book in some ways, hated it in others

    Confession -- I grew up in Nebraska, left it as a young adult, still attend the College World Series (the best sporting event in the U.S.), and retain a favorable view of the overall goodness of its people. Accordingly, at times I found this book just not believable with all of the deeply-flawed characters that populate Goodnight. Then again, it made for interesting reading. Just be prepared for a disturbing event every 40 or 50 pages or so. Feel good stuff this ain't.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2003

    Wonderful Book

    This book was probably one of the best books I have ever read. The way McNeal describes all the little details and emotions of the characters makes it possible for almost anyone to relate to at least one character. You will pick up this book and not be able to put it back down once you begin to read it. Even after you do set the book down you will be thinking about what happened for a long time after. This book is definetaly worth any persons time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2003

    Simply a great novel.

    Tom McNeal's novel, 'Goodnight Nebraska' is simply one of the most enjoyable novels written in the last 20 years. McNeal's tone and style so perfectly match his story you can almost smell the midwest as you read it. The characters of this novel keep you pondering their choices long after they have made them and the relaxed feeling of the town makes you want to drive out and visit them. This is a great debut novel and hopefully not the last for Mr. McNeal.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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