Tom McNeal Essay - Critical Essays

McNeal, Tom


Tom McNeal Goodnight, Nebraska

Tom McNeal is an American novelist and story writer.

Critics have praised Tom McNeal's ability to depict the details of small-town life in a poignant and refreshing manner in his first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska (1998). The book has been compared to two American masterpieces, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and John Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle. Albert Mobilio also noted similarities between McNeal's novel and Grant Wood's "iconic" painting American Gothic, "whose figures meet our inquiring gaze with a mask of grim self-containment." McNeal's stories have appeared in periodicals such as Playboy and he is the author of The Dog Who Lost His Bob (1996).

Goodnight Nebraska opens with 17 year-old Randall Hunsacker caught in a downward spiral that begins after his father is crushed to death under the porch he is repairing when Randall is 14. Randall subsequently shoots his mother's lover—who is also his sister's seducer—and wrecks a stolen car. Randall's skill as a football player gives him a second chance, however. His coach in Salt Lake City sets up Randall's journey to Goodnight, a fictional town in Nebraska, where the local high school coach has agreed to serve as Randall's guardian. There he becomes a star athlete and a minor town hero. He falls in love and eventually marries Marcy Lockhardt, the senior class president, an honor student and cheerleader. Conflict develops in their marriage, however, and Marcy leaves for Los Angeles after a violent encounter with Randall. Randall pursues her, determined to bring her back. She returns and the two move in with Marcy's parents, with destructive consequences for the parents. Although reviewers appreciated McNeal's storytelling, most commentators raised objections about McNeal's plotting. A critic for Kirkus Reviews complained about forced "episodes of wildly outrageous plotting," citing scenes such as the miraculous revival of Randall on the playing-field after a hazardous play that is also the moment Marcy declares her love. This complaint is echoed by Albert Mobilio who felt that this kind of "wild contrivance […] seems better suited to the fanciful doings of a young-adult novel." Other critics, such as Ted Leventhal, described Goodnight, Nebraska as "deftly changing time, place, and narrator to create a spellbinding plot." Reviewers agreed that McNeal's depiction of small-town life is refreshingly uncliched. Goodnight, Nebraska "dispels any rose-colored images of rural life," according to Leventhal. In the same lone, Mobilio affirmed that while Goodnight, Nebraska "fails to startle us with its plot, it remains haunting in its descriptive detail."


Charles Michaud (review date January 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Goodnight, Nebraska, in Library Journal, January, 1998, p. 143.

[In the following, Michaud explains why Goodnight, Nebraska is "a fine first novel."]

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.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 January 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Goodnight, Nebraska, in Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1998, p. 14.

[The following review summarizes and assesses the plot of Goodnight, Nebraska.]

The intensity of desperation in the American heartland marks this first novel by McNeal [Goodnight, Nebraska], 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 lakes 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 farm—it's the beginning of the end for the folks.

Some honest, delicately formed moments here are tarnished 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.

Publisher's Weekly (review date 5 January 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Goodnight, Nebraska, in Publisher's Weekly, January 5, 1998, Vol. 245, No. 1, p. 58.

[The following review looks at the strengths and weaknesses of Goodnight, Nebraska, which is characterized as an "impressive but pawed first novel."]

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 [Goodnight, Nebraska]. 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 she 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 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.

Charles Hix (review date 12 January 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Goodnight, Nebraska, in Publishers Weekly, January 12, 1998, Vol. 245, No. 2, p. 32.

[In the following review, Hix provides information on the editorial process that led to the final version of Goodnight, Nebraska.]

When Bob Loomis, Random House vice-president and executive editor, purchased Goodnight, Nebraska, Tom McNeal believed his interlocking narrative about the inhabitants of that fictional fanning community constituted, he says, "in the broadest definition, a novel." The veteran editor disagreed: "What Tom had was a bunch of short stories with connections all over the place. I felt we could meld it all together for more impact." After 15 months and two comprehensive overhauls, Goodnight, Nebraska took final shape. "What I feel pretty good about, now, is thinking of this definitely as a novel," declares McNeal. "I enjoyed the process. Bob was never prescriptive. He would present such and such as a possible problem, and if I agreed, he'd ask, 'Can you fix it?' I never felt I was making compromises." States Loomis, "Tom figured out how to do it. These characters are great because they don't know they live in a small town. Tom doesn't sentimentalize or patronize them." As Goodnight, Nebraska begins, protagonist Randall Hunsacker is 14 and living in Salt Lake City when his father is crushed to death while repairing the underside of the front porch. By the time Randall is 16, he has shot but not killed a man after discovering that he is sleeping not only with Randall's mother but also with his teenaged sister. A year later, Randall is on probation in Goodnight, Nebraska, trying to reassemble a life. He marries his high school sweetheart and more years pass. "Randall and his wife outgrow their lesser selves," explains McNeal. The first-time novelist's short stories have been published in the Atlantic and anthologized in The O'Henry Prize Stories. Asked to liken his work to another's, a genuinely modest McNeal replies, "I'd be really embarrassed to compare it to Dubliners. But Joyce talks about the moral history of a town. I knew I couldn't do anything that ambitious. But the moral history of a family, I felt I could try that."

Ted Leventhal (review date 1 February 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Goodnight, Nebraska, in Booklist, February 1, 1998, p. 899.

[In the following review Leventhal considers McNeal's treatment of small-town life in Goodnight, Nebraska.]

Few novels written today make the reader want to leap inside and join the action. Goodnight, Nebraska, McNeal's first novel, is just one of those gems. His story about love and hatred, loss and redemption in small-town Goodnight—the name of the town at the center of the story—dispels any rose-colored images of rural life. The harsh, realistic depiction of the meanness and evil produced from ignorance and isolation is reminiscent of lives in Truman Capote's In Cold...

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Merle Rubin (review date 10 March 1998)

SOURCE: "Migration That Leads to Self-Discovery," in Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 1998.

[In The following excerpt, Rubin briefly considers McNeal's kinship with other writers and his ability to depict "ordinary" lives in Goodnight, Nebraska.]

In Tom McNeal's accomplished first novel, a teenage boy leaves his home in Utah to make a fresh start in the mythical town of Goodnight, Nebraska, which is also the title of the book [….] Randall Hunsacker [is the] husky, gruff, likable, rather innocent-hearted lower-class hero of Goodnight, Nebraska. When his father dies in an accident, Randall's no-class mother takes up with a sordid fellow who's got eyes for...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Albert Mobilio (review date 3 May 1998)

SOURCE: "Run to Daylighn," in New York Times on the Web,, May 3, 1998.

[In the following review of Goodnight, Nebraska, Mobilio focuses on McNeal's "meticulous rendition of the gritty reality of small-town life."]

Describing Great Plains communities that, "like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops," Wright Morris once noted, "The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited." This predicament—in which the landscape's sheer vastness overwhelms its residents—has always captivated American writers. In the hands of authors as varied as Willa Cather and Jane Smiley, the region's endless skies and vistas can seem as oppressive as...

(The entire section is 837 words.)