Forrest Gander, The Trace

Publisher: New Directions

2014, 240 pages, paperback, $23

ALL AROUND US, ghosts of the past linger: in the buildings, on the roads, and in the landscape. In Forrest Gander’s second novel, The Trace, these spirits trail a couple as they journey through Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert in order to retrace the final days of Ambrose Bierce, famed nineteenth century journalist. Miles from nowhere, on their way home, the couple takes a shortcut, and their car overheats in the dangerously hot countryside. There an encounter with narcos will alter them forever.

Dale, a history professor, is researching the legend behind Bierce’s death for a book he is writing. Bierce had traveled to Coahuila on the hunt for an interview with Pancho Villa during the height of the Mexican Revolution. Like many who traveled west, Bierce disappeared without a trace, and his death is steeped in folklore and legend.

In Gander’s novel, these myths of Bierce’s death and the natural history of the towns propel Dale and Hoa along their journey through the searing desertscapes. They too are on a quest, not only to uncover the mystery surrounding Bierce’s disappearance, but also to find something they have lost in the wake of a life-altering accident involving their adolescent son. These intertwining plots mirror one another to a complementing effect, but a compelling forward arc is not all this novel offers.

A translator and a poet, Gander’s precision with language is evident as he steeps the tone of the landscape in the details, and this country is imbued with an anthropomorphic death. As he says,

           Was there something intrinsic to the ego that it had to project itself into spaces
           from which human presence was missing, into 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?

Gander’s descriptions offer the reader a glimpse into the savage landscape and the sometimes- savage people who inhabit these unforgiving places.

On the periphery of this novel, often in a different point of view than Dale or Hoa, hitmen from the Mexican drug cartels and the dead they’ve left behind roam these same spaces. This realm of desolation impinges on Dale and Hoa’s lives, and while it doesn’t take center stage, the threat of it appears on the horizon like a distant thunderstorm. Eventually these worlds of the living and dead will collide. As Hoa says,

           She could hear the ghosts of the past. Miners and whores, married couples and
           their children, who made brief claims against the desert and oblivion. People
           who, with every muscular contraction, every embrace, every swallow of pulque
           and water, proclaimed that they themselves were, among all those who had come
           before them, the only ones privileged to their particular moment. Their now.
           They were living.

A few passages later she realizes that someday they, too, will be snuffed out, and their bodies will be “subsumed by the desert.” Hoa’s statement reminds us that despite the privilege of life, death is never far. However, this omnipresent ephemerality doesn’t ring malevolently throughout the novel. Rather, this cycle of death and birth is merely indifferent to the whims and follies of our hopes, dreams, and quests.

What then remains? What can escape this circularity? According to Dale as Hoa leaves for help, it is the traces we leave behind:

           And [Hoa] was with him now, wherever else she was. Traces of her skin on his
           skin, her hair in his hair, her fluids in his body, all the wine and saliva and
           crumbs that had passed back and forth between their mouths innumerable
           nights, and words and each other’s dreams. Hoa’s dreams.

It is passages like these, lyrical and optimistic, that keep the novel from transgressing into the well-trod, non-regenerative landscapes of violence found in Cormac McCarthy’s southwest. While here too violence reigns sacred, a tenderness also embodies the relationship between Dale and Hoa as they navigate the complexities of life altered. This relationship stands, then, as a counterpoint to the nihilistic violence of the narcos.

Ultimately, the characters in Forrest Gander’s The Trace are on a quest to find the marks of themselves in life, in death, and in those around us. From Dale and Hoa’s journey it can be inferred that the creation of a quest, not the completion of it, offers us a chance at revitalization. Each of us, Gander implies, will continue our search for meaning, and unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

—Eric Blankenburg