“The ranch house sat long and dark brown. It wasn’t old – not much is out there except the
land itself – but this was aggressively new. Its angular, flattish rooflines looked like Frank Lloyd
Wright had been hired to draw up an enormous log-and-stone cabin one morning and had
tossed it off in time for lunch.”
That description, blending an artist’s insight with the smart-aleck patter of a private eye, opens “The Trackers,” by Charles Frazier, a fast-paced, memorable book – a Western novel and a detective story, and more than either, in the same way that Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” was more than a Civil War epic.
Published in the spring for summer reading, it is a book to be read again in the fall.
“The Trackers” begins in Dawes, Wyoming, in the depths of the Depression. The narrator is a young artist, Valentine Montgomery Welch III, whose family lost all in the Crash of 1929. He has traveled to Dawes to paint a mural in the post office, one of the artworks commissioned by the WPA to commemorate local communities.
While painting the mural, Valentine is offered a room at the Long Shot Ranch. This is the domain of John Long, an Eastern aesthete turned Wyoming land baron, and his young wife Eve,
once a cowgirl singer in a Western band. While Long hatches political plans, the spread is run by Faro, the ranch foreman, a tough, taciturn Westerner, who is old enough (he hints) to have
fought and drunk with Billy the Kid.
Triangles exist among the characters; how they are drawn is the question. Valentine is drawn
to Eve. Long the art collector lavishes attention on the young artist. When Faro talks with Eve,
he uses the same quiet tone he uses when gentling horses.
The painting of the mural is a metaphor hidden in plain sight. Art is the mainspring of this book.
Valentine wants to emulate Diego Rivera and Thomas Harte Benton, with heroic murals of
popular life and struggle. For Long, collecting Impressionists is a personal indulgence that hints
at hidden depths. Faro, the laconic man of action, remarks tersely that “Crazy Horse got in and
out of life without being photographed, and that seems like some kind of victory.”
In a tiny Renoir that her husband dotes on, Eve sees a young woman exhibited and disregarded:
“Could be the painter keeps putting her on display and she’s tired of having to be the center of
attention every minute by being good-looking. Do things she doesn’t want to do, like stand
there in the weeds getting bug-bit and being painted.”
She vanishes, taking the painting with her. To recover the Renoir, reclaim his wife – and learn whether Eve has a first husband still living – Long dispatches Valentine on what becomes a cross-country chase.
Some historical novels slather on historical details. “The Trackers” moves into the past by
capturing an era’s diction. Val falls into the wised-up, scuffed-up tone of the tough guy with a touch of the poet, something Humphrey Bogart made familiar. (“I sat in a dark back corner
with a gimlet, but the Rose’s had gone bad. The taste of vinegar instead of sweet lime
overwhelmed the stage.”)
This looks back to the films of the 1930s, to “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” Valentine’s hunt for Eve and her stolen Renoir, blind alley after blind alley, suggests “Citizen Kane,” with Philip Marlow tracking down what “rosebud” meant.
Valentine crosses an America that mirrors the present – but weirdly. Seattle is a gloomy lumber
town of falling-down mansions and hobo jungles. Backwoods Florida is poorer, darker, and
maybe more violent than James Dickey’s version of hillbilly Georgia.
The Supreme Court of the Thirties, the Nine Old Men, issues rulings that throw roadblocks in the path of history (in which Frazier finds a rhyme with the present). And on Long’s ranch-house wall hangs a rifle, a 1903 Springfield 30.06, which will play the part that Chekhov prophesied. Frazier’s novels have been about living people caught up in history. “Cold Mountain” was a close-focus study of the Civil War and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Thirteen Moons” was about the Southern frontier, the Cherokee Nation, and the questions raised by enduring love.
“Varina” was the story of Jefferson Davis’s widow, a bright Southern lady who knows her husband is her personal lost cause, and whose friendship with Mary Chesnut (stirring opium into wine, late at night) shares more with Ann Beattie than with Margaret Mitchell.
As in other works of the Thirties, The Trackers feels that the strength and vitality of the American
republic lie in its people: savvy bellhops and quick-witted taxi drivers, stewardesses who double
as registered nurses, displaced professors who shelter among bookshelves of the classics, a
postmaster who knows that the outlaws on the wanted posters in his lobby are hostis publicus.
Eve, who can draw people to dance halls and nightclubs, would know that.
The design of history may be vague, Frazier implies, but the effects will be striking. Valentine’s greatest labor is his mural of Dawes and its hinterland. But on the rim of the Pacific, he discovers something striking, unexpected, and energizing:
“I’d never been to Europe, neither to fight a war nor to look at old masterpieces on my father’s
dime. But … if we, meaning our culture, could make this bridge-sculpture right now, bad off
and broke as we were, then surely we could do almost anything, and we could do it gracefully,
powerfully, beautifully, and functionally.”
Over San Francisco, the new Golden Gate Bridge pierces the fog, cinnabar-red and brilliantly new.
“The Trackers.” Charles Frazier. Ecco. 324 pp. $30.00.
Allen Boyer, book editor of HottyToddy, grew up in Oxford.