I received a copy of Tracks by Eric D. Goodman from the author in exchange for an honest review.
About the Book:
The setting: a train. The characters: its passengers. In a series of overlapping short stories, the latter are introduced. As each takes the spotlight for a story, as the train makes its steady way from Baltimore to Chicago, the tales of those aboard unfold.
My first thought when I heard about Tracks was that the premise and the way the novel’s format reflected it sounded quite intriguing. Goodman pulls these off even better than I’d hoped. I’ve never read anything quite like Tracks.
First, there is the format of the novel itself. It begins as the train is boarded in Baltimore and ends as the passengers disembark in Chicago. In between, time is just fluid enough to make sure everyone’s story told. The way Goodman subtly shifts back a few hours or jumps ahead a little in time has the neat effect of creating that sort of discombobulated feeling you get while traveling on long-distance public transportation, that sense that you’re somehow apart from the outside world, in transition, as you make your way from one place to another. Very effective.
Goodman also lets his characters observe one another. The most common point of contact is the lounge car, which most (if not all) characters visit at least once during the trip. Here they are described in narratives not their own by certain identifying features: a dragonfly pin, a planner, a military uniform. When each character’s story comes up in the progression, we learn about the significance of each item. With each new story the reader experiences, another piece of the puzzle falls into place. The next time a character visits the lounge car or passes someone in the aisle, there is an ever greater chance of it being someone we’ve already met, one of the stories we’ve already read. And if it isn’t, there’s a good chance we will. It’s a fascinating way to build up a connected group of people, even if it is only the reader and not the characters themselves who perceives them as being linked. This approach also allows Goodman to develop his characters by showing how each reacts to fellow passengers as well as to events that occur on the train. This casual layering of perspectives is extremely well done and rather delightful to experience.
The characters’ stories are immensely varied. Some are happy or hopeful while others are painful, sad, or even scary. Some are resolved, others are not — just like in real life. Each one gets a few pages in the limelight, though. We learn why these people are on the train, why they are traveling or returning to Chicago, a bit about their histories, their families, their doubts and dreams. For the number of characters in Tracks, each is remarkably well fleshed out.
I think my favorite part of Tracks was how it makes you realize everyone has a story. How often have you sat on a train, or a bus, or a plane, and seen your fellow passengers as just people? Even if you’ve talked with them, it’s doubtful you’ve gotten their full, uncensored story. I think it can be hard to remember sometimes that every person you encounter has at least as much going on as you do. Goodman lets his characters make those snap judgements about one another we’ve all made, while simultaneously revealing that each character is so much more than that initial impression. Each story would have worked on its own, but together, linked by the thin thread of the train, they amount to something bigger than the sum of the parts. Goodman accomplished this masterfully in Tracks.
I’ve now read a couple of books where the structure ties in with the novel itself (the other that comes to mind is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell). What books have you read where this is the case?