The Trace, New Directions

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John Tytell at American Book Review

“Journey to the End of Life”

Forrest Gander’s
The Trace is a compelling— one might say stunning—novel. I would place it in the tradition of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947). Though it’s not as linguistically ravishing and reckless, it surely spirals on the same downward trajectory to a Mexican hell. The Trace comes to us with the blistering heat of Cormac McCarthy. Like Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky (1949), another Conradian tale of the white man as interloper in unfamiliar terrain, it rivets on the tension between an unmatched couple on a sort of literary pilgrimage that get detoured into a devouring desert.

The two pilgrims in Gander’s spare, exquisitely chiseled story are Hoa and Dale. Hoa is a potter, daughter of a Vietnamese woman who had worked as a clerk in the American Embassy in the late 1960s and married an American accountant. Hoa studied art at the University of North Carolina at Ashville where Dale teaches history, and where they met in the library stacks.

Married for twenty years, their lives have become transformed by their only son’s auto accident. Declan has had a painful recovery, and just prior to completing his undergraduate work, he drops out and disconnects entirely from them. Headstrong, anti-authoritarian, given to spasmodic argumentativeness, Declan has vanished in an angry void. In the wake of his absence, Hoa blames Dale; she relies on sleeping pills, and he relies on anti-anxiety medication. They both feel depressed and somehow guilty.

Waiting to hear some word, a telephone message assuring safety, months pass, and their marriage becomes mechanical: take-out food eaten on TV trays. During his summer break from teaching, as part of a book he is writing, Dale decides to pursue the actual trail of Ambrose Bierce, perhaps the best-known disappearance in American literature. A caustic journalist and short story writer, Bierce decided in 1913 to interview the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, despite his lack of Spanish. Crossing the Texan border at El Paso on horseback, he reputedly joined Villa’s forces near the city of Chihuahua. There, all traces of his existence end, and the probability is that wounded in a skirmish with Mexican
federales, his remains lie in an unmarked grave. But there are various versions of his death—enough for legend—and Dale is on a search for traces. Hoa decides to accompany him although he warns there will be hours and hours of driving.

The couple flies from Ashville to El Paso where they rent a Chevrolet Prizm to proceed south and visit the places near the Chihuahua desert that Bierce is supposed to have explored—a silver and zinc mine called La Hacienta de los Muertos, a battlefield and several small towns. The desert with its vertical canyon walls, volcanic massifs, and serrated mountains is a moonscape of cacti and yucca, mesquite and brush in sand. The desiccating threat of its heat shimmer, and the lacerating sun becomes a dominating presence in the novel, “a terrain so brutally indifferent to human beings that, but for the road, it managed to repel almost any trace of the world’s most aggressive species.”

The journey is demarcated by bizarre occurrences. The novel begins with a short graphic scene of macabre Aztec horror near a town called La Esmeralda where a Mexican drug bandit with a bobbing head methodically skins the decapitated head of a victim and drapes the skin over a soccer ball; the quartered remains of the same body are later manifested to Dale and Hoa when they reach the zocalo of Esmeralda. As they proceed on their journey, they see hovering vultures and rattlesnakes, spiders, a giant tarantula, and later an “inky torrent” of bats streaming out of a cave in which Dale seeks shelter. Portents appear along the way: the
memento mori on the sides of the road commemorating crashes; a dog sitting on the road mourning another dead dog. Weirdly, while driving, Dale compulsively admits the memory of a college acid trip that ended in an underground crawl in a crypt, a place of “no moisture, no sound, no light, and no air.” Absurdly, there is an incomprehensible anti-Semitic outburst in a roadside café by a Mexican who assumes Dale to be a Jew and who blames the Jews for economic collapse. A nine-year-old boy sitting in a swing in what seems to be a town devoid of people relates that his little sister Clarita had lost her way the night before in the desert and was eaten by coyotes.

This patterning of ominous moments is anticipated by Joseph Conrad, who figures in this novel in a very comical anecdote drawn from Ford Madox Ford’s memoir in one of Gander’s few literary overtures. In
Heart of Darkness (1899), Conrad describes a French battleship firing wantonly into the African continent. It is a sign of “sound and fury signifying nothing” (like our bombing in Vietnam or the Middle East?). Gander presents such scenes unobtrusively, slipped in naturally, and almost incidentally, as they should be. With a writer like Denis Johnson, in his recent The Laughing Monsters (2014), the technique which can serve to deepen a more universal message, sometimes, seems more overtly staged and forced.

Another device that Gander employs deftly is prefacing each chapter with one of his
own poems. Brief, clipped, sometimes elliptical like the description of a woodpecker drilling into cactus for insects—these poems often function as a foreshadowing or a commentary on the narrative as in the end of one about a couple driving called “The Iteration” who realize:

That only dust was given duration.
They know that
they are naked.

The Bierce sites are situated miles apart. Dale drives for five, eight, and ten hour stretches until they visit them all. Although he does most of the driving, Hoa is tired of car time and eager to start for home. Returning north, a little past midway through the novel, the couple finds a shorter route on their map through the Chihuahua Desert. The paved road devolves to gravel, then to dirt, and finally to dirt and sand, a fine dust sucked into the car. Driving through what seems to Dale like a dust mirage, he notices a nearly invisible steam venting from the grill and from the seam all the way around the hood of the car. Who would drive through a desert without a few gallons of extra water? The radiator has overheated; it is drained, and they are stranded.

Recriminating, Hoa points out that the path on which they have been driving is now “just a trace.” It is an allusion to their existential crisis, but in a larger Conradian sense, it may suggest the aspiration of any writer. It could occur in a novel by Robert Stone or Denis Johnson. Roberto Bolano, in
2666 (2004), in one of his fabulous digressions on an imagined Russian surreal science fiction story he calls “Twilight,” has one of his protagonists—freezing, his horse submerged in snow and struggling—wonders “what trace of us will remain?” That trace points to the writer’s salient desire to leave some mark for a future, some flicker or resonance, even a scratch on paper, to (however feebly) validate existence.

Dale climbs a twenty-foot-high sandstone outcropping to see how much desert lies ahead. When descending, he falls and injures his ankle badly.

The couple spends the night in their disabled car with Dale drinking half of a bottle of tequila to quell the pain in his swollen ankle. The next morning, Hoa is terrified when she sees bears while urinating. They decide to walk, but they are both suffering from dehydration, and Dale is hobbling with mounting pain. Finally, he sees a cave that might afford him shelter from the sun. Hoa— remembering her clay baking process that becomes an implicit metaphor—continues on the trail, hoping to reach the paved highway they had seen on their map.

More dead than alive, surrounded by barren rock and chest high brush, Dale spends several days in the cave, surviving on cactus for moisture and stumbling through the dense brush on his bad ankle to find more. He discovers that the recesses of the cave contain a pungent marijuana stash, plastic wrapped packages the size of carry on luggage with bar codes, which the smugglers will retrieve. I will not rehearse the details of Hoa’s sudden reappearance, just when the man with the bobbing head whose gruesome action had begun the novel is emptying the contents of the cave. While his depleted condition makes him a surprise candidate for heroics, Dale manages to steal the pickup and escapes with Hoa. Gander’s manipulation of suspense and high drama is superb, quite thrilling actually.

John Tytell’s most recent book is
Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem (2014).

American Book Review, March/April 2015