Phoebe Mosey was just another hillbilly sure-shot until she was re-created as the mythological construct Annie Oakley. The millions she made changed the fate of her descendants, including indie-rock promoter (and reluctant Georgetown blue blood) Hayward Thiess. Only now Hayward’s standing between several lanes of California traffic, covered in gravel and blood, and fending off the sedative effects of a concussion. Seeking emergency shelter, he wanders into an abandoned Malibu beach house. Over the next few weeks of convalescence, between rereading every trash paperback in the vacant place, he reflects on the chain of catastrophes that led him here—crossroad events occurring not only in his life span but also in that of his quick-draw ancestor’s. Sam Brumbaugh’s semiautobiographical Goodbye, Goodness has scenes set in Georgetown, Malibu, and the Wild West, but its real location is the whooshing vacuum left behind in the wake of failed American optimism.
A dreamy, half-stoned novel woven from autobiographical warp and fictional weft, Goodbye shuffles the chronology of Hayward’s travels, saving all revelations until the end. Beginning at the car accident (the strict chronology’s midway point), Brumbaugh deftly segues between Hayward’s exodus in the empty beach house, war stories from the indie circuit, a misspent Georgetown punk-rock youth, a doomed love affair, and the grandiose fiction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. As if living out an ancestral curse, Hayward drifts through a new generation’s struggle to self-construct an American identity, sharing the indie-rock road (and vices and heartaches) with his fellow preppie-refugees Kimmel and Will. Brumbaugh has a witness’ acuity for detail, and his matter-of-fact prose is sprinkled with sharp-grain recall of little truths (especially some that will resonate with readers from the D.C. scene, like how it’s a bolder move to wear a Dead Kennedys pin when you know actual Kennedys). Clarity of detail keeps the fuzzy, buzzed narrative from disintegrating into free-association mush, and, like other novels with biographical components (think Flaubert’s Parrot), its gamble of a semifactual structure pays off.
Less interesting is the he said/she said that clutters up the last 10th of the novel, when what we want is more emotional conclusion, not chitchat. The characters on occasion speak the author’s metaphors, not their own (who really describes an ex-girlfriend as having “eyes like the windows of a girl’s school”?). Those small missteps aside, Goodbye, Goodness beautifully captures the wrung-out feel of a depleted American century.