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  • Written by Tom McNeal
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  • Goodnight, Nebraska
  • Written by Tom McNeal
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On Sale: September 23, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55647-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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At the age of 17, Randall Hunsacker shoots his mother's boyfriend, steals a car and comes close to killing himself. His second chance lies in a small Nebraska farm town, where the landmarks include McKibben's Mobil Station, Frmka's Superette, and a sign that says The Wages of Sin is Hell. This is Goodnight, a place so ingrown and provincial that Randall calls it "Sludgeville"-until he starts thinking of it as home.

In this pitch-perfect novel, Tom McNeal explores the currents of hope, passion, and cruelty beneath the surface of the American heartland. In  Randall, McNeal creates an outcast whose redemption lies in Goodnight, a strange, small, but ultimately embracing community where Randall will inspire fear and adulation, win the love of a beautiful girl and nearly throw it all away.


The Supernormalist

When Randall Hunsacker was thirteen, his family moved from Salt Lake City to a canyon in the foothills, into a stilted five-room house perched above the tightest in a series of tight turns in the canyon's sharply descending road, so that from their front porch Randall's family often got a good view of cars pushed to the limits of control. The screech of fires, followed by the acrid and-to Randall's nose-exhilarating odor of burnt rubber, was an everyday occurrence. Randall himself hoped that one of these cars would spin out and perhaps roll over. He didn't exactly hope for human carnage, but he knew that in such cases it was sometimes unavoidable. Occasionally, if he was alone as a car passed by, Randall would make the ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunking sounds he imagined a rolling car would produce.

When a Buick Riviera carrying two people actually did miss the curve, Randall was disappointed he was not there to see it. It was an early July evening. He and his father were working late, painting somebody's guest house in Federal Heights. His mother had already begun her shift at the Ten Pin. His sister, Louise, was in the back of the house with a girlfriend, sitting at the kitchen table, thumbing through TV Guide and Glamour, talking about boys and haircuts. The man driving the Buick Riviera missed the curve completely, shot pell-mell up the embankment and without braking slammed through the spindly posts that supported the front porch, which dropped like a table leaf.

By the time Louise and her girlfriend rushed out the back door and came sliding down the bank, the driver, an oil man from Wyoming, and his passenger, a young woman wearing Levi's and dangly silver earrings, were laughing like maniacs. The driver's comic perspective of the event did not, however, keep him from filing legal actions one week later against Wasatch County and the builder of the house and Randall's parents for approval, construction and occupancy of a substandard structure within the county's required building setback. (In regard to the county, there were several ancillary charges involving such things as "inadequate signage precedent to a mortifyingly dangerous curve.")

From August to December, while this matter inched toward resolution, Randall's family entered the house either by scrambling up the side of the hill and coming around back or by climbing an ancient extension ladder to the front door (to improve stability, Randall's father strapped the ladder to stakes at its base and to the house above, but nonetheless, at its midsection, the ladder had the unnerving feel of a suspension bridge).

"An oil man, out sightseeing with a girl half his age, knocks out your front porch, then sues the bejabbers out of you," Randall's father said to Randall one day out of the blue as they were finishing up a job. He swung his characteristic half grin toward Randall. "Don't ever tell me it ain't a screwy ol' world."

Randall's father was a large, hearty man with a pink scalp edged with just a horseshoe of silky brown hair, a man who smelled pleasantly of sweat and sawdust and cigars, a man who had shed his optimism gradually and with regret. He took on whatever odd jobs turned up, and Randall liked tagging along. Randall carried tools, and ran back to the truck when others were needed. He lugged away whole rolls of old carpet. He mixed perfectly uniform batches of concrete. He painted carefully. He didn't know which came first, his liking the work or being good at it, but both were true. Whenever someone praised Randall, his father always said the same thing. "Yep, he's my little supernormalist," he would say, a reference to a joke he'd heard long ago, and then he would append an explanation: "The boy thinks he can do anything."

In January, Randall's father signed a side agreement proposed by the oil man's insurance company, which held harmless both Randall's father and the driver, and in addition provided Randall's father with a check for $200.00 to cover the direct expenses of buying the piers, posts, planks and paint required to rebuild the porch.

"Two hundred smackers," said Randall's mother in a derisive squeezed-tight voice, and then, turning a bitter smile to Randall and Louise, "Your father finally hit it big."

On the day his father died, Randall had gone ice fishing with a friend. Randall thought of staying home to help with the porch, but his father said that all he was going to do that day anyhow was line up materials and maybe just get started. The meaty part would begin tomorrow. Meantime, his father told him, ice-fishing trips didn't come along just every day.

Louise was the one who found him. Louise was not quite sixteen. Before returning home, she'd spent the afternoon with a girlfriend. When she heard her father's portable radio playing beneath the house, she called out that she was home. "It's me," she said, peering into the dimness. At her girlfriend's house Louise had drunk some cola with rum in it, but whatever giddiness she'd been feeling vanished as she followed the muted sound of the portable radio to the body. She wondered if she ought to try to get to his mouth to do resuscitation, but when she experimentally touched his hand she understood from its stiffened nature that he was dead without doubt. Louise withdrew in stupefaction. She climbed the extension ladder into the house. She washed her hands twice with soap, then she called her mother at the Ten Pin, and informed her of the facts.

By the time Randall got home, they'd removed the body. First the jack and then the cribbing his father had built to support it had given way. He was pinned beneath the timbers. When Randall was alone with Louise, he began asking questions. What did he look like? Did he write anything in the dirt? Louise said maybe he was trying to say something because his mouth was open. His body had already begun to stiffen, she said, and his tongue was gray. From the wild marks in the dirt and the state of his pant legs, his feet had flailed around even while his chest was pinned down. She stopped as if unsure whether to go on.


"Nothing," Louise said finally.

"Tell me, Weasel. Tell me what else." (As a child, Randall had called Louise Wheeza, which, at about age ten, he'd altered spitefully to Weasel, which had then undergone a more mysterious translation, from malice to affection.)

"No, that's it," Louise said. "There is nothing else." Randall could see she didn't think he believed her, and he didn't. So she said, "Except it seems like a terrible way to die, without even two minutes to prepare for it."

When he had the chance to slip away, Randall crawled under the house. He thought he might find blood, but he didn't. What he found were the gouges and scrapings in the dirt his father's boots had made. There was no order or pattern to them at all, and it was easy to imagine the violent thrashing of his legs as the house pressed the last air from his father's chest. His father's flashlight lay to the side, switched on, its beam barely visible. The silence under the house was as deep and complete and discomposing as cave silence. It seemed to compress so tightly from all sides that it suspended Randall within it. For a long moment he couldn't move. Finally, as Randall scooched away, he saw something else. A few feet downhill from the scrapes and gouges was the stubby, half-chewed cigar that had been in his father's mouth at the moment the cribbing gave way.

That night Randall lay in bed wondering how he could feel so different. It was as if a hand had reached inside him and taken his heart and begun gently to squeeze. His heart was tender at first, then raw, then it hurt, actually hurt, with every beat. This went on. Even when he awakened in the night from sleep, it was there waiting, the dull, painful, rhythmical throb.

The memorial service was short, with a hired stranger from the mortuary saying words that meant nothing. Besides Randall's sister and mother, the only others in attendance were two waitresses from the Ten Pin. Randall's mother was not herself. Her cynicism had slipped away and left her disoriented. When the service was over, Randall had to touch her elbow and lead her stiffly outside the chapel to join the others standing in the bitter cold. Nobody put his arms around anybody else. No one knew what to say. One of the waitresses said it was the coldest winter she ever remembered and the other waitress said, "Coldest and longest." A silence followed. Randall's mother in a small voice said, "He always joked that he preferred winters like this. He said it helped keep the riffraff out."

Six weeks later, on Randall's fourteenth birthday, his mother laid two identical revolvers on the kitchen table in front of him. "Your father took these in pay from a widow lady and cleaned them all up. The idea was he'd keep one and give you the other for your birthday. He thought you'd both take up partridge hunting or some ridiculous thing." The hardness was gone from his mother's voice; she seemed in fact about to cry. Randall didn't want to see it. He pulled one of the long-barreled pistols closer to him on the table. It was a Ruger-a bird with a dragon's head was set into the wood handle. He lifted the pistol; it felt like three pounds easy. "I'm pawning one," his mother said, "but I thought you might want the other."

Randall shoveled snow for neighbors up and down the canyon, and when he'd earned the money, he bought a gray felt case for the pistol, and slid it into the back of the bottom drawer of his dresser. A month or so later, he bought a box of .44 Magnum cartridges that he arranged neatly next to his father's last half-chewed cigar in a Roi-Tan box that fit snugly beneath a loose floorboard on the back porch.


A few months after the funeral, Randall's mother came home with a man. She didn't introduce him to Randall and Louise. She let the man stand there and do it himself. "I'm Arnold," the man said. Instead of extending a hand, he kept rubbing his scalp. He was a tall man and had just conked his head on the living room chandelier. Randall's mother looked at Arnold and then at Randall and Louise. She seemed at a loss. "Look," she said when Arnold excused himself to use the bathroom. Her voice and manner were wobbly. "Your father's gone now. I wish he wasn't, but he is."

The line of boyfriends was a long one that ended with Lenny. Lenny was four years younger than Randall's mother, but looked younger yet-his face seemed always to have the flushed, pleased look of a bully who's just won a fistfight. He dressed in unbelted Levi's and clean white tee shirts with a thin-width cuff rolled at each sleeve. He reminded Randall of a weird mix of Fonzie from the old TV show and the little killer Perry in a movie he'd seen called In Cold Blood. Lenny had never married, but was engaged a few years before to a woman whose photograph he still carried in his wallet. One night at Hardy's Restaurant, he pulled the picture from its plastic sleeve and laid it on the table before Randall, Louise and their mother. While they regarded the woman in her revealing bathing suit, Lenny talked. "My fianc?e had no attention span whatsoever," he said. "'I'm hungry,' she'd say and we'd stop someplace nice and three bites into a plate of spaghetti she'd just let the fork fall from her hands. 'I'm full now,' she'd say."

All at the same time Lenny folded up his wallet, laughed and shook his head. "I like it when a woman knows what she wants, Lenny said, winking at Randall's mother. "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants," and then he said, "Better yet, I like it when I know what a woman wants a little while before she does." This time he winked at Louise.

Louise gave him a look of heartfelt revulsion. Lenny smiled and adjusted the roll on his sleeve until it was just so.

It occurred to Randall that Lenny took pleasure in believing that most people were a little afraid of him. Whenever Lenny flashed his self-pleased smile on Randall, a wet pricklish fear spread over Randall's neck, a fear that brightened Lenny's eyes.

Most of a year passed. Lenny didn't marry Randall's mother, but one Sunday, without much preparation, Randall, Louise and their mother moved into Lenny's house in the Rose Park section of Salt Lake, on the dwindling side of I-15. "My house is like me," Lenny said. "It's big for its size." It was a basic one-story brick house, but Lenny had built his bedroom into the attic and had begun remodeling the basement. This was where Randall and Louise were to sleep. Lenny had installed a tiny corner bathroom with a fiberglass shower enclosure, and had begun separating the rest of the basement into two dismal rooms. He'd framed the dividing wall, but hadn't yet gotten to the insulation or Sheetrock. It felt to Randall like a honeycombed cellar, something you'd normally enter only in a bad dream. Louise tacked up sheets for privacy while Lenny stood by and talked about how cool it was down here in the summer, and how warm it stayed in the winter.

"And I should just think of all the mouse punks as chocolate chips," Louise said, and Lenny, pretending she meant it as funny, laughed hard.

Mornings, Lenny worked out with free weights in the front room, cooked and ate a six-egg omelet and, if the weather was good, washed his truck, all before he went off to work at 7:30. It was a truck, as far as Randall was concerned-but Lenny called it a tractor. He pulled trailer-homes with it, though Lenny liked to call them mo-biles (he elasticized the final syllable, so that it rhymed with trials). Some were fourteen-wides, and some were twenty-fours and twenty-eights that came in two sections. Lenny pulled them into place, set them on piers, made the sewer, electrical and propane connections. The setups formed the core of his work, but the skirtings and awnings were the easy money. Randall didn't offer to go out on jobs with Lenny and Lenny didn't ask. It was Randall's mother who pushed it.

So one wintry day, against his will, Randall found himself bouncing along in the high, closed cab of Lenny's truck, the cassette deck playing gospel music loud. While Lenny drove, Randall shuffled through the plastic cases on the dash. Mahalia Jackson. The Clara Ward Singers. The Gospel Harmonettes.
Tom McNeal

About Tom McNeal

Tom McNeal - Goodnight, Nebraska

Photo © Jeff Lucia/Cal Media

Tom McNeal is the critically acclaimed author of many short stories and the adult novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, winner of the 1999 James A. Michener Memorial Prize. He is married to the writer Laura McNeal and they live in Fallbrook, California.


"You'll want...to buy copies for all your reading friends--flawless."--San Francisco Chronicle
"What a remarkable debut!... A small town that is as vivid and alive as Sinclair Lewis's Zenith, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon."--The Denver Post
"Deft, touching, and humorous. In the tradition of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, and Anne Tyler."--The Christian Science Monitor

"McNeal is aware that many more of us will accept the sadness we know than venture out in search of a possibly painful unknown--and he renders such decisions in language whose very plainess feels musical."--The New York Times

"A vivid, tender and thoughtful portrait of a great plains farm town. These sad, secret stories bring out the best of McNeal's writing, and are his finest and most lasting gifts to the reader."--Los Angeles Times

"Completely compelling. A beautifully drawn portrait of a town that at once combines and cradles the people who grow up in it."--National Public Radio

"A strange, bumpy, and memorable trip through small town USA--a compelling journey into the heart of American life."--Redbook
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Tom McNeal's Goodnight, Nebraska. We hope they will point out a number of interesting ways of approaching this marvellously rich and nuanced novel of small-town life by one of America's most gifted writers.

About the Guide

When seventeen-year-old Randall Hunsacker arrives in the Great Plains town of Goodnight, Nebraska, pop. 1680, it is with the knowledge that here he has a second chance. Here he can escape violent events back home in Salt Lake City—a shooting, a car crash, a family shattered—and build a new life for himself. But starting from scratch proves to be far more problematic than he had hoped, and he soon realizes that the picture-perfect farm town into which he is, with some difficulty, absorbed conceals lives that are as complex, troubled, and lonely as lives are throughout the world. Goodnight, Nebraska describes Randall's ten-year progress, from disreputable friends and a too-early marriage to a renewed effort and, at last, a possibility for the sort of redemption he has long been seeking, and in the telling it becomes the story not just of one young man but of an entire community. In the great tradition of Sherwood Anderson's Winesurg, Ohio, this wonderful novel draws a distinctive portrait of a claustrophobic yet ultimately welcoming town without ever sentimentalizing or condescending. Goodnight, Nebraksa is a book to savor and to treasure.

Discussion Guides

1. How and when was the pattern set for Louise's wild and self-destructive life? Why is she unable to break out of this pattern, while Randall, ultimately, is?

2. Why is Randall so affected by the joke about the supernormalist, remembering it at intervals throughout his life? What might it mean to him? Do you agree with Marcy's interpretation of it [p. 88]?

3. How does Randall's experience with Anna Belknap pave the way for his attraction to Marcy? What does Randall look for in a girl? How does he define love, and how does he modify this definition as he grows up?

4. Was Randall's staged accident in Salt Lake City a deliberate suicide attempt? If not, what might he have been trying to bring about? How does this car accident parallel and echo the car accident at the end of the novel?

5. After the accident, Randall's right hand, with its missing fingers, is permanently deformed. Why does the author continue to remind us of this deformity throughout the book? What other characters have some sort of deformity, either physical or emotional? How are all these wounds connected?

6. Why does Randall behave in such a self-destructive fashion for so many years, even though he clearly craves love and acceptance? What unresolved issues in his past contribute to this behavior?

7. If Lucy Witt had not found Randall's letters, or if Lewis had not thought he overheard Randall making the crude joke in the bar, might Randall have found his way more easily and happily in Goodnight? Or would other, similar incidents have arisen? Do his early problems stem from the prejudices of the townspeople, or from his own behavior?

8. Why is Marcy dissatisfied with Bobby Parmalee, and why is she so strongly attracted to Randall when she first gets to know him? How does she justify to herself her decision to sleep with him? Why does she decide to marry him? Was it a decision taken for the wrong reason?

9. Why do both Dorothy and Lewis instinctively act to save the life of Randall, the boy they think they hate?

10. Randall tells Marcy about a memory from his childhood: "A kid up the hill raised racing pigeons, a whole bunch of them, and then one day he just decided he was tired of it and started shooting them. He killed about seventy-five percent right off. What was weird was that the rest would circle around and eventually come back because it was the only place they could think of as home" [p. 197]. Later Marcy is reminded of this when Dorothy suggests that Marcy and Randall move back to the farm. How does this story reflect Marcy's life? Randall's? Other characters in the novel? Who breaks out of this mold, and in what way?

11. Why does Dorothy become so extremely depressed and restless at this particular moment in her life? Might her problems have been triggered by Marcy's defection to Randall, with the abandonment of any dreams that Marcy, or her parents, might have had for her future? What might Dorothy's own dreams have been for herself?

12. When Dorothy asks Lewis what he believes in he says "Me. I believe in me" [p. 126]. How does Lewis's character shape and affect his life? As a reader, how do your feelings toward Lewis change and develop as the novel progresses? Who has a more practical philosophy of life, Lewis or Dorothy? Which proves more resilient in the end?

13. Why does the author devote so much space to the pheasant hunting trip? What does it tell us about the lives of men in this culture? How do the day's events change Meteor Frmka's life? How do they change Randall's?

14. What sort of statement, if any, does Goodnight, Nebraska make about small-town life? Does life in Goodnight, as McNeal depicts it, seem impossibly claustrophobic, or is it attractive? What must one give up to live in a community like Goodnight, and what does one gain?

15. Randall, in coming to Goodnight, and Marcy, in going to Los Angeles, both hope to "start over." What do their experiences tell us about starting over? Is it ever really possible to do so?

16. Every young person has ambitions and dreams; every older person has been to some degree disabused of them. How do the characters in this novel come to terms with or modify their dreams? What does Marcy hope for herself at the beginning, and what does she feel she can hope for by the end? What about Dorothy and Lewis? What does it mean, in Goodnight, to have "prospects"?

17. How do patterns of behavior, of love and marriage, of achievement, repeat themselves from generation to generation among characters in this novel like the Hunsackers, the Lockhardts, the Parmalees, the Frmkas? How do parents' mistakes and decisions affect the decisions their children will eventually make? How hard is it to break these patterns, and who succeeds in doing so? Is it more difficult to break this type of pattern in a small town like Goodnight than it might be in a larger and more diverse society?

18. Broadly outlined, Goodnight, Nebraska could be described as Randall Hunsacker's search for redemption. How successful is this search, in the end?

19. Do you believe that a place or a community molds its inhabitants in its own image? If so, how would you describe Goodnight and its citizens?

  • Goodnight, Nebraska by Tom McNeal
  • June 01, 1999
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9780375704291

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