The thrumming backdrop of Sam Brumbaugh’s well-wrought debut novel is a rueful American romance of the open road, combined with a near Ballardian danse macabre of vehicles hurtling toward death clinches with each other. Cars killed narrator Hayward Theiss’s mother, killed one of his best friends, and have somehow dumped Hayward himself—bloodied and pocked with glass—in the safety lane of a highway as Goodbye, Goodness begins. Most likely concussed, vaguely amnesiac, Hayward hides out in an unoccupied Malibu beach house while, noir style, the shards of his backstory reassemble themselves: his breakup with his mentally ill girlfriend; his tense, weathered friendships with shambling freelance writer Will and bored singer-songwriter Kimmel; and his obsession with sharpshooter heroine Annie Oakley, yet another auto-smash victim and a onetime lover of Finn Theiss, Hayward’s entrepreneurial great-grandfather.
Finn made his millions on gravel, then worried that “Americans would become dangerously restless” with too many roads to roam—a prescient concern, given the
nada y pues nada bearing down through Hayward’s psychic windshield: “Humming along at seventy miles per hour, there was nothing; a frontier through glass and nothing but maybe an accident to break the natural momentum toward nothing.” Tired of his job scouting bands for a public-television program (Brumbaugh was a producer of the PBS series On Tour), Hayward looks back to a lost age of discovery as embodied in Wild West icon Oakley, while Goodbye, Goodness struggles to digest big slabs of her autobiography. Notwithstanding the Oakley passages, the book is a period piece: a low-fi mid-’90s recording in novel form. Hayward’s father once donned the Polonius mantle and counseled his son, “Don’t expect,” which is precisely the dangling good advice with which Pavement end their 1994 Watery, Domestic EP; during the Depression, Finn acted as silent partner on a model of the bathysphere, which provided Bill Callahan of Smog with one of his finest subjects.
At its best, Goodbye, Goodness achieves an early Smog song’s arch, doleful poetry of self-absorbed disillusionment: “All that stagy listlessness, it’s finally paying off,” Will observes of Kimmell. Ironic poses held too long have dulled their receptors and stiffened their joints, which they oil with absinthe and heroin. They make and interpret art that they can’t take seriously; both their vocations and their drug habits are stale jokes they can’t finish. Despite a cushion of inherited wealth, Hayward sleeps on a mattress on an empty floor, and he remembers his rootless childhood with his single father much as he will his early thirties: as a rotation of canned food and rented rooms “suffused with a vague ache of womanlessness.” Goodbye, Goodness does not differentiate post-post-adolescence from functional clinical depression. Pensive and precise, it’s a backhanded encomium of lost boys who’ve never learned how to take care of themselves, always crashing in the same car.