Charles Michaud (review date January 1998)

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

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[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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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 Blood. Still, McNeal's mythical small town remains warmly compelling, and as its name suggests, dreamlike, otherworldly, and outside of time. His storytelling is magnificent, deftly changing time, place, and narrator to create a spellbinding plot. He brings to life a great cast of characters: Randall, the mysterious boy form out of town; Marcy, the ail-American girl who loves him in spite of herself; and numerous others who are likable in spite of their anger, resignations, and other petty faults. In all, a wonderful book and, hopefully, a harbinger of more good works to come from McNeal.

Merle Rubin (review date 10 March 1998)

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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 Randall's nubile teenage sister. As problems worsen, precipitating a near disaster, Randall is given the chance to get away and start over.

The little farming town of Goodnight is not Randall's idea of Shangri-La. Compared with Salt Lake City, this place looks like "Hicksville." But, as McNeal deftly, touchingly, and humorously illustrates, there's a lot that a young man can learn, even from "hicks." In the tradition of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Anne Tyler, McNeal goes beyond the facade of a seemingly dull small town to reveal how extraordinary "ordinary" lives can be.

Albert Mobilio (review date 3 May 1998)

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SOURCE: "Run to Daylighn," in New York Times on the Web, www.nytimes.com, 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 shadowy confines of a jail cell. Fitting squarely within this tradition, 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.

For Randall Hunsacker, a 17-year-old from Salt Lake City, the farm town of Goodnight, Nebraska, is almost literally a prison. Back in Utah, he shot his stepfather, who he believed was molesting his sister. Then he drove to the top of a steep canyon road in a stolen car that was missing its brakes and took a suicidal ride, from which he miraculously escaped minus only two fingers.

Relocated to Nebraska by a friendly football coach, Randall gets a chance to start over. He moves in with an aged widow, takes a job at a gas station and earns a starting spot on the high school football team. At night, he writes to his sister, Louise, who has run off to West Virginia with the stepfather he shot, his mother in pursuit. "If a wart was a town," he observes, "you'd call it Goodnight."

But Randall's view of Sludgeville, as he also calls it, softens when he begins dating a good-looking cheerleader named Marcy Lockhardt—even though they meet on the sly because Marcy can't cut loose from her longtime boyfriend, Bobby Parmalee. Marcy may be desperately bored, but she also desperately wants out of Goodnight, and Bobby is bound for college and veterinary school. Although McNeal has a sure hand when it comes to depicting high school shenanigans—notes passed in the cafeteria, looks shared in the tunnel that divides the boys' and girls' locker rooms—he too readily evokes the melodrama of teen-age angst. And his plot turns on a wild contrivance that seems better suited to the fanciful doings of a young-adult novel. In the big game, Randall is hit hard just as he's about to make the winning score. Kneeling over his limp, breathless body, Marcy suddenly blurts out that they are engaged, while her father (who has just been told by his wife that she believes their daughter is sleeping with Randall) pounds on the boy's chest, his anger serving to pull Randall back to life. Overwrought business like this undercuts McNeal's otherwise meticulous rendition of the gritty reality of small-town life.

Their secret revealed, Randall and Marcy soon find themselves married, and it's no surprise when their relationship begins to sour. (They even wind up in a mobile home.) Randall loses a series of jobs, while Marcy struggles to improve their lives, briefly finding work at the local television station. One winter day, he takes her out for a drive and ends up parked in front of the house where a man has recently shot his wife and four of his five sons. "It's like all you're interested in anymore is people's weak spots," she remarks. "You know," he replies, "in the end, the weak spot is what we all boil down to."

Pressured by Randall's incessant suspicion, Marcy confesses to a number of invented infidelities; he responds by punching her in the face. The next day, she takes off for California, where, in a scene seemingly taken from another book, she interviews for a job as Steven Spielberg's assistant. When Randall turns up in his truck, intent on bringing her home, Marcy is forced to realize that there are loves "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 … 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."

McNeal is aware that many more of us will accept the sadness we know than will venture out in search of a possibly painful unknown—and he renders Marcy's final decision in language whose very plainness feels musical. Resignation has seeped into the pores of all his characters, and it is this quality that he illuminates most effectively. Like Grant Wood's "American Gothic," that iconic painting whose figures meet our inquiring gaze with a mask of grim self-containment, Goodnight, Nebraska offers a familiar portrait. In the end, if the novel fails to startle us with its plot, it remains haunting in its descriptive details.

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Introduction