Picks and Pans Review: Tracer

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Frederick Barthelme

Somewhere between a dirty belly laugh and a scream of confusion, Frederick Barthelme's characters live out their aimless lives. The scenes they drift in and out of are galvanizingly vivid. Martin, the narrator of this novel, has just divorced. On a whim he visits his ex-sister-in-law, who manages an apartment building in Florida. The sister is divorced from a man she thinks is crazy. There are others living at the complex who are just as detached, except for a man who runs a pancake franchise and seems to believe, almost hysterically, in the abstract importance of the huge variety of pancakes his place offers. After his ex-wife suddenly appears, both she and her sister have flings with Martin, then discard him. He is good at sex, they tell him, but that is not enough. References to products, television and familiar movies are like musical notes sounded over and over again to keep the reader from slipping into the surreal. Like Ann Beattie and a few other writers, Barthelme, 41, shows us our world through artifacts: the Gulf of Mexico shines like Mylar; violence is struck with a can of Tab, and a whole page of Tracer is devoted to the lyrical beauties of a shopping-mall parking lot. In Barthelme's stories collected in Moon Deluxe, in his first novel, Second Marriage, and in Tracer, the best moments don't come from the odd, rarely likable characters or plot (although certain incidents are marvelously original), but they come from the brilliance and beauty of the writing. (Simon and Schuster, $13.95)

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