Tom McNeal Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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."