On the road with Charles Frazier’s new novel
Asheville’s award-winning author Charles Frazier has a new novel just out this month (“The Trackers,” Ecco/Harper Collins, April 2023, 324 pages). Unlike his previous books, this one doesn’t hunker down and focus mostly on Western North Carolina, but instead starts us out in a rural town in Wyoming where a painter, Val Welch, has traveled from the east coast to create a New Deal Depression-era mural commissioned for the local post office. For the first 100 pages or so, we’re in Dawes, Wyoming, at the sprawling ranch of a wealthy and politically ambitious 20th century impresario, cattle baron and art collector John Long and his Western swing-band singing wife, Eve, where Val has been invited to stay while painting his mural in the nearby town. In a book where we get Frazier’s typical well-researched and detailed writing style, here we get a descriptive painting of ranch life and personality portraits of his main characters, which also includes Long’s right-hand man, Faro, who is a throw-back cowboy to the wild West and who has stories about his personal interactions with historical icons such as Crazy Horse and Billy the Kid.
Frazier eloquently and poetically describes this pre-post-Depression period: “Natural gas producers, the corporations and their interchangeable leaders. They want to keep the state and federal government from regulating their operations and profits in any way whatsoever. They want utter freedom, a total lack of restriction or responsibility. It felt like nothing could ever free us of the hard times we’d been living for years — like sliding down the face of a massive wave toward another trough, like surf-riders in Hawaii;” hinting more than a little at the times we find ourselves living in here in the U.S. at the moment.
And so, we’re settled in as Val begins his work on the post office mural, saying “I tried hard to take a smart-aleck tone toward everything, but I took the work itself as seriously as Baptist missionaries sharing the gospel and how art in every small town, right there in your face filling up a whole wall every time you bought a stamp, could elevate the country, maybe by only an inch, but every upward movement, however small, accumulates.” So, as Val gets friendly with locals and everyone at the Long Shot Ranch, all of a sudden Eve goes missing.
With Long getting increasingly worried, if not frantic, he sends Faro and Val in different directions to towns with swing band bars and cheap hotels looking for Eve. When nothing turns up regionally, he pays Val handsomely to go west all the way to Seattle where he suspects she may have gone due to her past connection with the city. It turns out that Eve has taken one of Long’s precious paintings, a Renoir, upon her departure — for security and for big money should she need it. So, Val sets out in Eve’s sports car and Kerouac-like for the thousand-mile journey to the west coast, stopping at certain tourist destinations along the way. In Seattle, he spends his time in Hoovervilles, tent cities and raucous homeless camps with a photo of Eve in hand hoping someone will recognize her and have some helpful information. In the end, he does find someone who knows her and tells Val that she has come and gone.
Never the detective, Val is in uncharted territory in a game of cat and mouse as he heads out next to St. Petersburg, Florida, in what he describes as a “tilt-a-whirl airplane.” He searches for and finds the family of Eve’s former husband, Jake Orson, in the swamps of Escambia County, thinking that they could know where Eve might be. All he gleans from this experience is anger and physical violence and not much information going forward except that “both Florida and the country are going to hell,” as he makes his way back to the Long Shot Ranch in Wyoming to report on his findings. After a brief, but much-needed respite and recovery from his Florida trip and a few glasses of champagne, Val heads out to San Francisco, based on new information that had come in from his earlier contact in Seattle.
After some time searching the clubs and cafes there in San Francisco, Val finally discovers Eve singing in a music bar with a modern jazz band. A series of conversations ensue with Eve being tight-lipped and Val pressing her for answers to questions Long has instructed him to find out — about the status of her former marriage to Jake Orson. By now, Jake has been informed of Eve’s marriage to the wealthy Long and is headed to San Francisco to try and cash in on some kind of divorce settlement or blackmail scheme.
We see Val falling for Eve and wanting to protect her from her aggressive ex, who shows up as expected with threats and demands for money. At this point and then trying to unsuccessfully sell Eve’s Renoir to several galleries, Val knows he’s in over his head. This is a seque for a long car chase from San Francisco, down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast to Santa Cruz, Bixby Canyon and Monterey and dirt roads and more uncharted territory. But Faro unexpectedly comes to the rescue and Eve finally tells everyone her secret as to why she left the ranch.
But the story’s not quite over and Frazier dives deep into his prose-writing skills and character development to round out the storyline of “The Trackers,” with time flying by and giving us the impression that we’ve just sat through a two-hour movie thinking we’d only been watching (reading) for about 15 minutes.
Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”
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Good book but not as good as Cold Mountain or Thirteen Moons.