There’s no getting around it: Charles Frazier’s latest novel—The Trackers—is a dud.
Since he won the National Book Award for his enthralling debut, Cold Mountain, Frazier’s work has been a bit of a mixed bag. Thirteen Moons, Frazier’s 2006 follow-up to Cold Mountain, is a riveting account of Will Cooper, an orphan who is sold off by his adoptive parents to run a trading post in the hills of the Cherokee Nation. He buys his freedom, falls in love with the mysterious Claire, and finds himself battling both the federal government (on behalf of the Cherokee) and Claire’s husband, Featherstone—a violent man, who rises from petty horse thief to plantation owner. It’s a novel about suffering and how people often "die in ignorance and delusion." Almost nothing in life, Frazier writes, "is epic or tragic at the moment of its enactment. History in the making, at least on the personal level, is almost exclusively pathetic."
Nightwoods (2011) was Frazier’s first novel set in the 20th century, and while it lacks the narrative drive of either Cold Mountain or Thirteen Moons (not that Frazier is known for his tight plots), the setting in Appalachia brings out the best in Frazier. The mountains’ dark forests—both beautiful and deadly—are as inscrutable as the human heart.
But with Varina (2018), which is about the life of Varina Howell, the wife of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, Frazier clearly sets out to say something "important." The result is a novel that alternates between beautiful descriptions of the American South and on-the-nose political commentary in the guise of dialogue. "If you haven’t noticed," Varina says early on, "we’re a furious nation. … The only bright spot is, the right side won."
Alas, we have a fair amount of this sort of claptrap in The Trackers. The novel is set during the Great Depression and follows Valentine Welch, an artist sent to rural Wyoming to paint a Post Office mural. He stays at the home of a wealthy art-loving rancher and former World War I sniper named John Long, who hopes to run for the United States Senate. When Long’s wife, Eve, disappears, he sends Welch to find her. This sends Welch across the country—to Seattle, Florida, and San Francisco—where he meets a motley cast of characters.
I don’t think it is giving too much away to share that Eve disappears to get an abortion. In one conversation, she tells Welch and Long’s right-hand man—a character called Faro—that she "knew too many women who gave up dreams, or gave up their actual lives—meaning they died—because they got pregnant at a bad time." Faro responds: "Way I see it, Eve, nobody but you ought to be making the calls here." Her body, her choice, and all that.
When Welch goes hunting with Long, he finds himself wishing his grandfather could have died like the prairie dogs, which is to say, "in an instant, vaporized, instead of three bad years of doctors and hospitals and confusion and pain." Euthanasia pitch? Check.
And when Welch meets the family of Eve’s first husband in Florida, they turn out to be racist, of course, like everyone else in Florida in the novel, except Welch’s longsuffering cabby from Cuba. When Welch hitches a ride with a trucker, the trucker immediately starts to complain about government spending, Communists, and "negroes." When Welch needles him for his hypocrisy—the driver, it turns out, is hoping to get a "fat check" from the government just like Welch—he pulls a gun on Welch and tells him to get out of the car. Welch gets out and thinks, "Florida is an exhausting state." The Trackers is a little exhausting, too.
There are other problems. Frazier has a gift for creating a landscape that is more than the sum of its parts. The forests and hills in Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons are not just background. They are living things. Not so in The Trackers. Other than a few nicely drawn scenes, the landscape is mostly flat.
A few characters tell long stories, which go on for pages, for no apparent reason, and while Welch’s trips across the country may give him something to do as a character, they don’t add up to much of a plot.
Stylistically, the main problem is Frazier’s use of big, implausible blocks of dialogue, where characters give interminable philosophical responses to simple questions and, eventually, tend to all sound alike. In one scene, Eve describes pictures for a page and a half. In another, Welch tells his cabby about the "wealth centers of the nation" and the injustice of the American experiment for a page. In another, a deputy takes 10 lines to explain why he likes billy clubs. None of the characters sound like they are living in the 1930s, except perhaps Faro, but even at his most distinctive, he sounds second-hand, stitched together from other Western characters in American literature, at once too old and too contemporary.
Thirteen Moons gave us Bear and Featherstone and lines like "All you could do was try to go on living as a form of vengeance." The Trackers gives us the wisdom of the day served up by unlikeable characters as they drive around Florida or ride across the Wyoming desert.
What happened to Charles Frazier?
The Trackers: A Novel
by Charles Frazier
Ecco, 336 pp., $29.99
Micah Mattix, a professor of English at Regent University, has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and many other publications.