Goodbye, Goodness
by Sam Brumbaugh, reading at Powell's City of Books, Thursday June 30, 7:30 pm

When a book is especially awful, I tend to take it on an almost personal level, like the book is both an affront to literature and an insult to me as a reader. Sam Brumbaugh's Goodbye, Goodness isn't insulting, but neither is it particularly good. I was on page 92 when I realized why I was having such a hard time getting into this debut novel--I didn't care about the characters one bit.

Brumbaugh sounds like a pretty interesting guy: He has been in the music biz for a pair of decades, toured with cool bands on the Matador label, produced a series for PBS about rock shows, and recently completed Be Here To Love Me, a documentary about Townes Van Zandt. So it is with no enthusiasm that I knock his debut novel, but here goes.

Goodbye, Goodness is a semi-autobiographical story about Hayward Theiss, a dude in the late '90s who works on a television series about musicians and is a descendent of Annie Oakley--just like Brumbaugh's bio claims. Hayward is squatting in a posh Malibu beach house, trying to reassemble his memories in order to figure out how his life turned into such a despondent, laconic mess. Most of the book is told in these remembrances, which skip around haltingly and confusingly. There's an ex-girlfriend, Helen, whom he left after she suffered a severe mental breakdown, and two junkie friends that orbit his life despite the fact they aren't "friends" in any conventional sense. Flashback episodes of Hayward's relationships--the downward spiral of Helen, and memories of his remote, cryptic father--shuffle in and out of his consciousness, although none of the characters are particularly bright, compassionate, funny, or self-revealing. Throughout the text, Hayward interweaves the biography of his great-grandmother, Annie Oakley, in hopes that her trajectory will help illuminate his own. Although these passages are the book's most interesting, the two narratives never come together to create anything larger.

I admire anyone who sits down and plugs out a novel, particularly an ambitious one. But, at least in this debut novel, Brumbaugh's ambition outruns his talent.