Characters with no voices
BOOKS | The Trackers tries too hard to say big things
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Hemingway once wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” For Hemingway, meaning in fiction is found via subtext—in what is felt rather than said. Fiction, he believed, is no place for thesis. Rather, it’s the realm of pathos deeply felt via characters truthfully offered.
If Hemingway is right, contemporary fiction is in trouble. Consumed with political obsession, the modern novel has too often become a place for diatribe.
The most recent exhibit is Charles Frazier’s new novel, The Trackers (Ecco 2023). Known for his best-selling debut, Cold Mountain, Frazier emerged from the get-go as a voice for Appalachia, a writer prepared to examine the complex history of his home region. He’s continued this trend with varying degrees of success in his previous four novels, but in The Trackers he not only leaves his home state of North Carolina but also eschews the subtlety of his best works.
Set during the Great Depression, The Trackers chronicles the adventures of Val Welch, a 20-something artist sent to Wyoming by the WPA to paint a mural in a small town post office. But this contemplative pursuit is interrupted when Val finds himself embroiled in the marital strife of his tempestuous and wealthy hosts, the Longs—John, a military sniper turned politico wannabe, and his young wife, Eve, a former train jumper and musician who has hoisted herself from a flatbed to a mansion’s bed. Both John and Eve take a liking to Val but (sigh) all is not as it seems. When Eve disappears (for what turns out to be an obvious and dramatically disheartening reason), John hires Val to hunt her down, kicking off a cross-country adventure featuring old cars and early airplanes and a host of bizarre characters drawn only in caricature.
The Trackers drips with obsession with Americana: You’ll find grizzled cowboys with overlong tales to tell, Florida swamp dwellers with racist hearts, old-timey juke joints, and an incredible amount of soliloquizing about the Golden Gate Bridge. The book is deeply concerned with what it means to be American but can’t help but sermonize about why America is what it is today.
Far from being a window into any particular America, it is about no place at all. The vaguely drawn locales that Frazier conjures are rooted less in the eccentricities of places people call home than the kind that get offered up on the altar of saying Something Meaningful. Val Welch’s adventures don’t take the reader into the heart of America, but into the abstractions of making a point. Thus The Trackers comes across as a treatise more than a story, lacking the narrative punch that Frazier’s best works offer. One wonders if Frazier had a longer book in mind and didn’t quite get there.
Ultimately, this book suffers from the disease that plagues far too much contemporary fiction: All the characters sound exactly the same, and they are obsessed with the same ideas. Val sounds like Eve who sounds like John, which is to say they all sound like Charles Frazier. Even the cowboy gunfighter with the checkered past lacks a distinct voice.
Because of this, The Trackers lacks any coherent moral vision, even as it attempts to say big things about a myriad of politically fraught topics, from abortion rights to the plight of the common man in a capitalistic society to the role of guns in shaping the American psyche. The book means well, but it just tries too hard to mean well. The more a novelist worries about saying something important, the more it seems that he or she fails to say anything at all.