by Frederick Barthelme (Simon & Schuster: $13.95; 126 pp.)
Frederick Barthelme's new novel is onto some truths about contemporary Americans who exist in emotionally eerie nether worlds. Here, Florida becomes the metaphor for enticements that appear exciting but really have no depth of meaning. At one point, a life-size statue of a horse is trucked into the scene. Great trouble is taken to set the creature on a stretch of beach, but it is, after all, fake; it's only a momentary--and false--diversion.
Martin, "almost" divorced from his wife Alex, finds Alex's sister Dominica a sexual companion, but he also sleeps with Alex when she arrives at Dominica's place on the Gulf. These characters are related to each other, but not truly related at all. They bump into one another's genitals; they talk about sex as if it's vitally important, yet they never fully meet on anything but a fumbling, adolescent level. Dominica tells Martin about an article she's read on "the human parts industry," in which umbilical cords are sold to be used as arteries. In this book, human emotions are transplanted in the same way: Maybe the attachments seem to work for a while, but they don't fit naturally.
Barthelme is terse and scary about this. The vision in "Tracer" is that people damaged by divorce, separations or loss of love never move beyond the damage. They never grow up. They play around. They tease each other, as when Alex and Martin engage in a pseudo-hostile-funny car chase.
They seem to make decisions, but the decisions circle back on them. Nobody gets out of anything, although they do eventually exit from Dominica's motel-condo. Martin gets on a plane, just as he arrived on one at the beginning of the novel. Wiser? Freer? Changed? No.
"Maybe I should hang around," he says to Dominica, who replies vaguely, "Maybe I'll call you." He leaves just as lonely, if not lonelier, not unaware of his predicament but seemingly incapable of doing anything about it.
"Tracer" is full of weary awareness. There's simply not enough energy in this side of the American psyche to ponder large human questions, but people are, at least, direct with one another. They don't have the strength to be anything except pointedly blunt. Dominica asks, "What is this, the end of the known world?"
There's not much fertile past to hold up this kind of literature, and it probably won't be of much importance in the future. But it's important now, a moral lesson in loss of committed romantic love, loss of spirit, loss of self to the extreme where reflections of the self become absurd. A minor character owns a pancake house that he raves about, but the food is ridiculous. "Make you a monster-jack if you want . . . . Got everything in it. I think I may get a patent--it's like a pizza, you know."
A reader is left with the same unfulfilled longing as the characters: longing for what's really great, what has real value. This makes "Tracer" a cautionary fable about our temptations to defend ourselves against adult life, which is always laced with pain but has to be faced with courage--even battered courage--so that change can occur.
When a child appears, enticingly named Magic, the reader hopes for a moment of vitality, perhaps the discovery of a fresh attitude in Martin. The child even sees a rainbow; surely something will break through now! But Martin's only response is that the little girl "talks a lot."
His defensive emotional state--nothing can awe him--makes change impossible. Barthelme's awfully good at this sort of thing, setting up a moment of possible breakthrough or violence, then snatching it away.
There's a sharp eye for contemporary detail at work in the writing, detail that's as soulless as the American dream of love gone sour. The distances between men and women are chillingly discerned, and the things they notice are impersonal and distanced, too: 800 telephone numbers; "those robot welders on TV news stories"; the popular music that Dominica sways along with, as if it's the only rhythm available to her.
Barthelme has created a world of disenchantment and done it well--even with humor. Not the humor of warm laughter but of maimed feeling pushed to its weirdest shores. It's frightening, but it is, after all, part of what we're about these days.