In the opening story in Gwen Goodkin’s debut collection A Place Remote, a character references Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch,” but the Springsteen song that best captures the spirit of these stories is “The Ties That Bind.” In “Winnie,” an ambitious scholarship student at an elite college is drawn to a childhood friend, a construction worker chasing jobs across the country and over the Mexican border. Goodkin is a sharp observer of class distinctions; her working-class narrator has a comfortable sense of where he belongs while Winnie struggles for acceptance among her affluent peers. Describing Winnie’s reaction to her classmates’ wealth, the narrator observes, “I could tell she liked it in a way, being around all these people. Maybe she thought their money was going to rub off on her.” The story’s ending is sad yet hopeful, Winnie’s life bringing her to unexpected places.
Goodkin’s dialogue is witty, earthy, and real, and her first-person narrators are unique and memorable. The tension between staying and leaving is woven throughout the book. In “A Boy with Sense,” a mother celebrates escaping her rural roots: “‘Best day of my life,’ Mom says with a cigarette between her lips, ‘was the day I left that shithole . . . .'” Yet her son sees the beauty in what his mother has forced him to leave: “Farming’s what I love. What I’m best at. Mom can think what she wants. I’d stay at the farm for good.”
Over the past five years there’s been a near obsession with the “Red State-Blue State” divide. A Place Remote is set firmly in the “Red,” but what matters most is the grace and dignity afforded these characters. Fiction allows readers to see into the lives of others and Goodkin makes an excellent tour guide into the remote places where her characters live, love, and dream.
A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin. West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Reviewer bio: Chuck Augello is the author of the novel The Revolving Heart and the story collection The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love.
Buy this book from our affiliate Bookshop.org.