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by Wells Earl Draughon

Apparently, Traci is not Wells Earl Draughon's first novel. If this discovery caused me some surprise, it had nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Nor was it anything to do with the appearance of the book, which is a slickly-presented hardback, though perhaps a little over-priced at 21.99.

Mr Draughon has put together a clever plot, with enough twists and turns to satisfy the most demanding reader. His style is smooth and competent. If there is a flaw in his work, it lies in his willingness to make the characterisation subservient to the needs of the story. This propensity makes itself felt from the opening chapters. As soon as the ambiguous prologue has done its job -- that of misleading the reader as to the nature of the plot -- we are plunged headlong into the story without the characters being given the time and space essential for their development. From the moment the Lolita-figure, Traci, turned up on Steve Bates's doorstep with an outlandish tale about being his long-lost daughter, I hardly knew what had hit me.

Steve, the hero of this novel, resembles no man I have ever met, except perhaps in his inability to keep his trousers on. Aroused successively by his girlfriend, the perfect yet insecure Janet, his ex-wife, the repellent Dolores, and more predictably by Traci herself, he possesses at the same time an excessive degree of gullibility and a tendency to martyrdom that should not come naturally to the human male. Steve sees himself as the good guy, and is deceived in turn by almost everyone he meets. Having been taken in by Traci, he is confused by his encounter with her mother and stepfather, and overwhelmed -- as well he might be -- when his real daughter turns up, with her mother in tow. In no time at all, Dolores (who at least has the excuse of mental illness for her extreme behaviour) cons him into believing her "cured". His assessment of other people's characters and motives is about as naive as it could be:

Jenkins didn't know the kind of guy he was up against, that's all. Thought he could just waltz in here and take his little Shirley away from a man like Steve Bates. This'd show him. And whatever he did next, whatever trick he tried to pull, he'd find Steve Bates right in there beating him at it.



Steve's daughter, Shirley, seems to have inherited her father's gullibility. At fourteen, she is infantile by comparison with the knowing Traci. She witnesses her mother's obsessions and mood swings but fails to recognise that they might just be an obstacle to her parents' reunion. Desperate to be back with her father, she nevertheless accepts the offer of movie stardom from a stranger in the street, something that would have aroused the suspicions of a much younger child. (Don't they have public information films in the USA?)

As for the eponymous Traci, after the first few chapters she is relegated to a minor role in the action. Although it is indirectly her fault that Steve and his family find themselves in physical danger as well as emotional turmoil, she never develops into the rounded personality that is promised at the beginning. Only on the most superficial level do we learn what makes Traci tick, and by the end we know just as little about her as does the unquestioning Steve.

New surprises await the reader at every corner. No sooner did I think I knew where the story was going than I found myself wrong-footed. The drawback with this is that it was achieved by cheating, on a scale that would have made Agatha Christie (the biggest cheat in the literary business) proud. The reason no rational person could hope to foresee the next plot turn is that the action does not spring from the characters, as I personally believe the best fiction should. At times Steve and his family appear to be carried along on a tide of events beyond their understanding. It might, of course, be argued that this is the author's intention -- to show what happens to a man when he loses control of his life. Nevertheless, I finished the book with a sense of disappointment. The long-awaited end twist left me wondering whether the whole thing had been a subtle and elaborate comedy -- a comedy whose point I had completely missed.


ISBN 0 595 65556 4
iUniverse, 2002
241pp, hardback
Retail price 21.95 ($25.95)

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher