I received a copy of Tracks by Eric D. Goodman from the author in exchange for an honest review.

About the Book:

Tracks by Eric Goodman (cover)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 Thoughts:

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.

Those are my thoughts. Check out Tracks by Eric D. Goodman on Goodreads or LibraryThing! If I missed your review, please let me know.

Your Turn!

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?

Join the Conversation

34 Comments

  1. The Confidence Man! It’s set on a boat and all the characters trick each other and one character tricks all of them and Melville tricks the reader and it’s just really fun and kind of mean. But it’s only mean toward the Transcendentalists so it’s ok.

      1. Nope, it gets really tedious, but if you like Moby Dick you might– actually, no you might not. It’s a really strange book.

          1. BARTLEBY! It’s a short-story, and one of the best things ever. In fact you can read it online right now! Hint! It’s also really different from Moby Dick and his later novels, but still shares their weirdness and postmodern-ness.

          2. Drat, I am out of town and don’t have my e-reader with me. I can’t read on my laptop screen — makes my eyes hurt. I’ll find myself a copy in the near future and make that my intro to Melville. That way if I hate Moby Dick but like Bartleby, I’ll feel like there’s still a chance Melville and I can be friends.

  2. This sounds like a very unusual and interesting book, and I think it’s so true that you never really know all that is going on with someone that you briefly meet in passing. We all have our own varied and multi-layered stories, and it sounds like this book really gets that point across. Great review on this one, Erin! I would love to read it sometime.

    1. It did get that point across, though so subtly that you hardly realized what the author was doing — so good! I really enjoyed it.

  3. I love the premise.

    I am reading a train book right now.. The Train of Small Mercies. Some of my strangest encounters have taken place on public transit. Very interesting folks, lots or little going on, tons to ponder.

    1. Isn’t it intriguing? Trains seem like such rich ground for stories: plenty of characters from different backgrounds, time for characters to think, etc. I hope your train book is good!

    1. I hadn’t, either! What I appreciated most is that it never felt overwhelmingly intricate. The author does a great job taking care of the complicated parts behind the scenes.

  4. Looks really good. Will keep an eye out for it.

    Read a great book once called 253 about passengers on a London underground train. Each chapter had exactly 253 words. Clever and funny.

    1. I really enjoyed it! 253 sounds fascinating. I’ll have to see if it’s something I can get. Thanks!

    1. I’ve never really considered a train as a good place to set a story, but now that I do I can see how it could harbor endless possibilities.

    1. I did, too! I was happy it wasn’t at all disappointing. I love it when a good premise turns out to have been well executed 🙂

    1. I hate that, when you can’t quite remember specifics but have a vague sense of having read a particular sort of book.

  5. This sounds like a wonderful idea!! I could totally imagine this. Whenever I’ve been on long train or bus rides, I wonder what everyone else around me is doing/being/going to. Sounds like he pulled it off wonderfully too.

    1. It definitely made me look more closely at the strangers I encountered! The author does a great job making every character so complete that the overall effect is really cool.

  6. That sounds fantastic. The fact that everyone has a story is something I’ve been thinking about lately, it’s overwhelming that there are so many of us and each has so many sorrows, joys and hopes. This book sounds perfect for my current state of mind.

    1. Oh goodness, it does sound like it’d be a good fit for you! It definitely got me thinking about those same themes.

  7. I love interconnected short story collections, so this one is right up my track. (Heh. Sorry.) Anyhow, it reminds me of Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, which is actually a novel divided into two parts, rooted in a connection on a train, though Hadley’s novel’s structure does not mirror this, which suggests a sophistication on this author’s part that’s nudging Tracks onto my TBR list.

    1. Haha, very clever 😉 The London Train sounds like something I’d like. I’ll have to look it up!

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