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Tracer (1985): Dark Light

[ed. note: as you can see, we have a banner now!, and I have also updated the indices as of December 7. Progress marches on…]

Frederick Barthelme, Tracer (Penguin, 1985)

[originally posted 11Oct2000]

photo credit: thatusedbookstore.com

Twenty-nine palms? No, only one.

When you’re a writer, and your brother is a writer, you have to expect the comparisons, especially if the two of you tend to float in the same water. The particular swimming pool that is eighties literature, pissed in on a fairly regular basis by Papa Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, is home to the Barthelme brothers. And as much as I hate to draw obvious comparisons and judge by them, Donald’s the better writer.

Still, Fred is capable of turning a decent tale. His protagonist is on the cusp of divorce, staying in Florida with his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s sister. The two never quite get romantically entangled, but they share bed space every once in a while, which makes things slightly uncomfortable when the wife shows up.

Frederick Barthelme’s strength resides in his ability to create minor characters and setting; much of what goes on around the main triangle here is memorable, in ways (as much as I hate to do it again… it’s the same kind of semi-dada whimsy that inhabits Donald’s more notable works). The problem is that the main plot, what little there is of it, never really gets off the ground. The main characters don’t have the emotional depth to hold the minimal changes in their emotional states that Frederick is trying to use to signal the way their relationships are changing towards one another. He’s also guilty of giving just enough in places to be ambiguous about what events will transpire, then cutting to the next morning without us knowing exactly what went on, and then never following up.

Could’ve been good. Left a lot to be desired. **

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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