Earlier I mentioned that I had picked up a book that completely drew me in after just a few pages. That book was Goodnight, Nebraska, by Tom McNeal.
The first 70-some pages of this book were incredible. I didn't want to put the thing down. McNeal's descriptive powers are outstanding and his characters, particularly his protagonist, was consistently believable and intriguing.
And then the book started to drag a little. The middle part of the narrative, which takes place in the eponymous town in the Nebraska Panhandle (the town seems to approximately replace Hay Springs, if any of you are curious and in posession of a good Nebraska map (and why would you be?)), drags a bit. In large part this is because the story turns into more a series of vignettes, and the focus on the protagonist is lost--he becomes just one of the few hundred people who call Goodnight home.
By the end, though, you realize what that means. The other residents of Goodnight, in fact, the town itself, are just as important as Randall Hunsacker. This is both a benefit and a drawback, since after about 100 pages the plot becomes unmoored and drifts around the sumptuous landscape of western Nebraska. In one sense it's the location itself that gets the best treatment in this novel.
Still, while I bogged down a bit chasing the plot, I enjoyed the story and appreciated it more after it had ended. In a large sense, the episodic nature of the story helps push the real theme, namely the repetitive and seemingly directionless nature of small town life. Most, if not all, of McNeal's characters are leading lives of (sometimes not so) quiet desperation, outwardly cheery while inside wrought with loneliness, boredom, and an unfulfilled yearning to break free and find out what else life has to offer.