Tracks: A Novel in Stories

  • Eric D. Goodman
  • Atticus Books
  • 316 pp.

A series of linked vignettes probes the small individual dramas of characters on a train.

Reviewed by Kate Blackwell

Fiction writers have long experimented with collections of stories linked by place, characters or objects (such as a painting or book). In Sherwood Anderson’s iconic Winesburg, Ohio (1919), one of the earliest examples of this form, the residents of Winesburg are portrayed in swift, vivid chapters. One character, George Willard, reappears throughout the book until, at the end, he leaves for the wider world. Anderson subtitles his book, “Tales of Ohio Small Town Life.” Today he might have called it a “novel in stories.”

Recent works by Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Egan follow a similar pattern,  weaving themes and characters through a succession of what can be read as individual stories. Neither of these authors uses a genre designation. (Reviewers generally refer to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge as stories and to Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad as a novel.) Each of them, however, is clearly interested in combining elements of the story and novel forms, as is Eric D. Goodman in his Tracks: A Novel in Stories.

The characters in Tracks are traveling by train from Baltimore to Chicago. Each character features in one of the 17 chapters, where we learn his or her story: the troubled marriage, the death of a parent, the drinking, the sex, the wrong or right choices. Goodman writes with an appealing directness and attention to detail. The strongest vignettes drew me into the characters’ experiences even when they happened long in the past. In one, an elderly woman is overwhelmed by memories of an earlier train ride when, as a child, she was taken in a packed boxcar, fouled by human waste, to a Nazi prison camp. Goodman brings the boxcar scene to vivid and horrifying life — more life, unfortunately, than he manages to give the haunted woman in the present, drinking cocktails in the club car. He also, for reasons I cannot fathom, adds a gratuitous twist to give her story a “happy” ending, diminishing the wrenching experience that came before.

The best vignette, the one that comes closest to standing alone as a story,  is that of a young soldier on leave from fighting in Afghanistan. He has just lost his girlfriend because he refused her pleas to leave the Army and repudiate the war. Now he is filled with sadness and confusion about the country and the cause for which he is fighting. Goodman’s war scenes, including the deaths of the soldier’s two closest friends, are gripping even as flashbacks.

However,  the frame of a train journey, though it provides a measure of cohesion,  has serious drawbacks. Most of the characters never knew each other before they got on the train and will never see each other after they get off. Since little hangs on what happens in the present, the reader’s emotional investment in the characters is small. This weakness is underlined when one character dies of a heart attack, a potentially emotional moment that goes virtually unremarked by most of the other passengers. As a reader, I simply didn’t care.

The only attempt at drama in the present time is provided by an aging hit man hired to kill a passenger who used to work for the hit man’s criminal boss. Narrated in three non-sequential chapters, this lurid crime-fiction is jarring. The hit man’s clumsy attempts to take out the former mobster are more embarrassing than believable, while the conductor’s fortuitous appearance at the instant the would-be killer readies his gun removes any remaining shred of dramatic tension.

More satisfying are the small dramas of the other characters. A young woman vacillates over whether she made the right decision to leave her obnoxious boyfriend in Baltimore for a better job in Chicago. A man who has focused his life on work at the expense of family is now approaching retirement and decides to throw away his planner book.

The conductor, Franklin, might be defending the novel’s premise in this passage in the final chapter: “Franklin could write a poem or two —  probably a book or two — about the people he’d met on trains. All of them alike, but none of them the same. Each person with his own story,  each story complicated and exciting, with as many ups and downs as any story you’d find on the TV or in a movie theater. … What better entertainment was there than the drama of those around him every day as he engaged in idle chatter?”

A fine philosophy for a train conductor, less so for a fiction writer.  Goodman might better spend his time writing strong, fully dramatized stories without the contrivance of a train ride or the crutch of plot twists or the easy-out of “happy” endings. Playing with hybrid forms like a “novel in stories” is tricky at best and at worst comes across as being merely a convenient way of publishing stories that cannot stand on their own.

Kate Blackwell’s short stories have appeared in numerous journals. Her story collection, You Won’t Remember This, was published in 2007. She lives in Washington, D.C., and in Neavitt, Md.

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