Public Art, Hoboes, and the Great Depression: “The Trackers,” by Charles Frazier

“This is not the Roaring Twenties—that world is gone and may never be back again.” – “The Trackers,” by Charles Frazier

Set during the Depression of the 1930s, the narrative of  Charles Frazier’s new novel, The Trackers, is embedded in a New Deal mural.  The narrator, Val, a young out-of-work artist, procures an assignment to paint a mural at the post office in Dawes, Wyoming. Although he is warned not to express radical ideas in his art, or in any way imitate the political murals of his hero, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, Val enjoys the opportunity to incorporate local history and the natural world.   And he proves to be a first-class art teacher:  he chats with P.O. customers about the WPA,  explains ancient techniques of mural-painting, and invites children to help him paint.

I would have been happy to spent the entire novel in the world of public art: as a fan of the murals of the regionalist painters Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, I have enjoyed road trips to admire the public art of the ’30s. In Frazier’s novel, the mural is both the still center and a vehicle for action.  Much of the action takes place on road trips.

Politics gets in the way of art, even though Val has been warned against politics. Val lives in a cabin on the ranch of his rich patron, John Long, an aspiring politician who proposed the mural to the government.  But after John alienates his wife, Eve, a former singer, by his relentless political networking, she drives away one morning and disappears. John  hires Val  to take time off from the mural and track her down – and also to make sure that Eve’s first husband is dead and that her past won’t embarrass him politically.

Finding Eve is problematic.   Before meeting John, Eve was dirt-poor and bummed around: she rode the rails, lived in hobo camps, and traveled as a singer for a band.  Val tracks her to Seattle through conversations with people on the road and in hobo camps.  Parts of this read like an informative oral history, fascinating though not always subtle. Alas, Eve is always several steps ahead of Val. Along the way, he encounters violent criminals and barely escapes with his life.

What I especially admired in this book were Val’s observations of the Great Depression using Covid metaphors.  (The Influenza pandemic preceded the Depression.)  Sometimes Val thinks life is getting back to normal, but then there is “the dreadful backsliding of the economy toward hopelessness, like waves of a medieval plague breaking over you again and again….  Soon we’d be seeing front-page apocalyptic photographs again, biblical dust storms, black blizzards, towering into the sky and scouring the landscape. Heat waves threatening to burn out the center of the country. Seventy-five percent of the nation in drought.”

This is a  splendid book – very smart, enjoyable, and fast-paced – the first I’ve read by Frazier. The writing is lyrical and passionate.  

A fascinating portrait of the Depression.