We've tangled with this Gander before, in his one previous novel, As a Friend. As we wrote in our review,
Forrest Gander? Did he make up that name? By page 7 you can't tear me away. By page 20 I am thinking where did he come from (Mars? Venus?) And by page 50 I am thinking there are writers and there are writers and this guy takes the cake. How do these novelists do it?
The Trace is a bit different. It takes a little while to wind up the clock, get the pendulum swinging. Dale (he's professor of history) and Hoa (she's part Vietnamese, does pottery) have a problem. Son Declan has turned juvenile delinquent, ended up in the hospital, then the nuthouse, then run away. They are distracted; don't want to talk about it --- to each other, to the reader. Maybe we don't want to hear.
Me? I know. This is just a diversion. I tell you, I've done Gander before. He has tricks up his sleeve, or in his high hat. When is he going to pull out the bunny?
Dale and Hoa are wandering around in their renta-car in the Chihuahua desert. They've just arrived in the town of Ojinaga. He's doing research on Ambrose Bierce, the journalist who disappeared in northern Mexico, December 1914, hunting the revolutionary outlaw Pancho Villa.
Dale has a theory. That maybe Bierce, knowing not a word of Spanish, got tangled up with the government troops, couldn't just explain that he was a famous journalist from San Francisco, nosing around for a story. Maybe got in deeper than he should, might have set off suspicions. If you are in the middle of a brand-new revolution, you do not, repeat, do not want to set off suspicions. That can be a killer.
Like I say, this is Villa territory, Bierce . . . but also Gander's. He's going to spring something on us. Where?
Ah, here it is. On page 40. A man called "El Palomo" with . . . um . . . a head in his lap. A head? Yes, and not his sweetheart's head. A human head, detached, as it were.
Picking up and laying down his knife several times, he gradually scraped away the tissue underneath the hair and, using his fingers, worked the flesh away from the back of the skull. It was easy enough work, clearing scalp from bone, until he reached the ear canals in their beds of fat. They were like little rubber hoses.
Got that? Ear canals. Like little rubber hoses. I can go on, if you want. The eyes? Those are more difficult. Do you want to know how difficult? The nose? The mouth?
I'll spare you, but understand, it's all carefully laid out here on three pages. You might want to skip them over. There are things we don't want to look at too closely, right?
I mean, we started out with this history professor and his young wife looking for a famous lost journalist from 100 years ago, and then we get a dissertation on how to pry some poor guy's face off his skull and on to, gack, neatly fitted onto . . . squeezed onto . . . a soccer ball.
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A former research assistant to Professor Harold Bloom reported an overheard exchange between Gore Vidal and Bloom: "Harold, what are the three ugliest words in the English language?"
Bloom, "I don't know, what?"
Vidal, "Joyce Carol Oates."
And I was remembering reading a review of an earlier Oates' novel, one of the first novels reviewed, in the first issue of RALPH, over twenty years ago:
The poop pix sent along with You Must Remember This shows Ms. Oates to be a lady with the clear and direct gaze of Tokyo Rose, the waspishness of Bonnie (as in Bonnie and Clyde), generally looking as warm and kissable as Rasputin's Uncle Igor. The writing clearly demonstrates the concerns of this modern-day Lady Macbeth: in the first fifty pages here we have three attempted suicides, two rapes, an extensive description of the structure and aroma of an outhouse, exact prose descriptions of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps, and, quote, a Negro boy maybe ten or eleven ... run over by a coal truck ... blood spilling out of his mouth, ears, like you'd squeeze paint out of a tube.
And we're thinking, "Wait a minute. Don't tell us that Gander, Forrest Gander, is a disciple of (ork) Oates, took a workshop in writing from her, there in Princeton where she practices her sullen craft?
Well, maybe . . . but no, wait a minute: after a pause in The Trace for the lecture-discussion on on the finery of head-flaying, our author turns left, thank god, takes our historian/Vietnamese couple out into the high hot desert, for hours, gets them totally lost on a road that turns into a trail in the heat where their rent-a-car bounces around and springs a radiator leak.
You do not want your radiator to spout steam when it's late summer, when you're lost in the vast Chihuahua desert, and you don't want to look out the windows of your already broiling car, to see nothing more than desert bush ocotillo creosote stone rocky hills in every direction, for miles and miles (and miles), not a human --- or a human habitation --- in sight. You also don't want to know that no cars will be coming by on this road-turned-into-an-impassable-trail there in nowhere with the oven already turned to high: no water, no people, no towns anywhere. Cell phone? Forget it. We're really lost, remember?
This is where Gander shows his true colors, here in the middle of this sun-impacted no-where-no-shade-no-water-no-town for dozens of miles in any direction. There is where our author rises and shines, and you'll find yourself start to read rapidly, turning the pages quickly getting sort of hot yourself, wanting to know how they're gonna get out of this one . . . if they do. Do they?
I'm not going to let you off the hook by telling you what happens. Especially, when our two parched lost wandering people imagine, out there in nowheresville, after walking in the parching sun for a whole day, imagine --- no, it's real! --- that they hear the sound of a truck, an old Dodge truck. Driven by a head-hunter.
By the name of El Palomo.
Whose name, by the way, means "pigeon" in Spanish.
Only he ain't no pigeon.--- R. R. Doister