Review of Goliath by Susan Woodring

by Guest Blogger April 10, 2013

Review of Goliath by Susan Woodring (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) 
Reviewed by Bethany Marroquin

This review appeared in Issue 27: Glimpses.

Goliath is a story of grief and connectedness, corporate identity and responsibility, leaving and being left behind. In the first chapter, the small North Carolina town is struck by tragedy: the suicide of Percy Harding, the prominent and beloved owner of Harding Furniture, businessman and backbone of the little town. Yet there is a reason that Susan Woodring’s novel is named for the town and not the man. For while Goliath touches upon the motivation behind Harding’s suicide, its focus is the way that one man’s death ripples outward to touch an entire community, disrupting the familiar routines of its inhabitants to bring change and redemption.

Like any small town, Goliath’s cast of characters covers the spectrum of personalities—from the respectable to the eccentric, the wounded, and the weary. High-schooler Vincent Bailey, who discovers the body of Percy Harding by the train tracks, detaches from his family and becomes sullen and reclusive as he spends more time with Cassie Stewart, a morbid teenage poet from the trailer park. Clyde Winston, Goliath’s retired police chief, struggles to comfort Percy Harding’s widow and dreams of uniting Goliath with a citywide baseball game. His gentle and dedicated son Ray is the city groundskeeper and self appointed revivalist, preaching the gospel and pursuing college drop-out Agnes Rogers, who longs for nothing more than to escape the dead end of a future in Goliath.

The lynchpin of the story and the town is Agnes’s mother, Rosamond, the abandoned wife of a traveling salesman, who for a time finds meaning in her role as Percy Harding’s personal secretary. Lonely, peculiar, and increasingly desperate, Rosamond is accustomed to being shunned by Goliath society. But after Harding’s death, she finds herself the bearer of the town’s sorrows, as one by one the people of Goliath begin to seek her out to confess and confide in her. Ever since the collapse of her marriage, Rosamond has lived with the crippling fear of being left behind—by her husband, by her restless daughter, and even by Percy Harding, the man whose confidence in her once gave new purpose to her life. Yet this newest abandonment, and the loneliness she has carried for so many years, endows her with an inadvertent empathy at a time when the community that has rejected her needs it most.

Woodring weaves these stories together seamlessly, displaying the bond that comes from shared loss in the montage of characters and points of view. In the town’s moments of crisis, Woodring can pass through half a dozen characters’ minds and hearts in the span of a page, narrating each from a contemplative third-person perspective. While the constant switchbacks are unsteadying at first, it is Rosamond—closely aligned with the reader, as an outsider looking in—whose brief epiphany brings clarity to the narrative style: “Rosamond realized they were missing something. Each one was acting out a half reality, and they didn’t know there was a full meaning beneath it all.” We see the scattered “half realities” of Goliath’s inhabitants in quick succession, leaving us to find the notches and grooves that hold one person’s puzzle piece to another’s.

Yet none of these characters would come to life if not for Woodring’s durable construction of Goliath as a town. From the potlucks and heavy red carpet of the First Baptist Church, to the Tuesday Diner where the retired “Morning Glories” come to drink their coffee and discuss the newspaper, Woodring brings charm to the commonplace details of small-town life, without falling into stereotypes. Her prose, thoughtful and poetic without being ostentatious, lends credibility to the imagined town. Descriptions expand into the atmospheric—the changing of the seasons, the weather, the sky. Even at points of climax in the story, the movement of the trees may be given just as much significance as a death or a reconciliation. The writing is rife with emotional undercurrents, with each character’s private pain, while dialogue is sparse.

Although I appreciated Woodring’s narrative style, I found that it held me at a distance from all of her characters, like watching a movie filmed entirely with a wide lens. While there are several scenes that zoom in on day-to-day details, personal encounters, and private thoughts, the lack of dialogue and responsiveness created an intangible disconnect between the characters and me. I felt this most strongly with Agnes, wanting to relate to her desire to be free of Goliath and travel the world—but ultimately I felt detached and uncertain about her driving motivations. The pensive, observant narration served as a glass wall, revealing the characters’ thoughts and feelings while simultaneously acting as a barrier, blocking me from connecting with them.

Goliath is a book for those who enjoy the slow unfolding of a story, those who prefer slow and steady character development to a fast-paced plot. Woodring’s atmospheric storytelling is like recalling a childhood memory—sometimes what sticks with you is not the specific phrasing of a sentence, but the resulting lift in your spirit and the changing colors of the clouds. Like the grieving process which it depicts, the book takes its time. But the concluding chapters are worth the wait, gathering the scattered plot points from throughout the novel and uniting them in a purging, bittersweet, but ultimately -cathartic climax.

--- Read Issue 27: Glimpses.

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Bethany Marroquin received her BA in English from Westmont College in Santa Barbara and is currently pursuing a teaching credential while working at a Christian international school in Pasadena, California. When she is not studying or solving the problems of the world (or, more frequently, the problems of over-earnest junior highers), she enjoys reading the poetry of Franz Wright and Gerard Manley Hopkins, teaching her dachshund terrier Dapple how to walk on two legs, and walking the tree-lined streets of Pasadena.

 

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