At the opening of John Yunker’s The Tourist Trail, Angela Haynes, consummate naturalist and melancholy loner, catalogs the nesting and breeding habits of warm weather penguins at a remote research station in Patagonia. “The males sang when their females returned,” the reader learns, “and the females sang in response. They flapped their wings and dueled their beaks and circled one another, orbiting, an ancient bonding ritual, an anniversary.” Such passages are frequent, driving home the depth of Angela’s isolation as she methodically lays circles of rope, calculating by random sample how many penguins remain of the ever-dwindling population.
Perhaps the competing narrative of Robert Porter, an FBI agent bound for a mission in Argentina, should have tipped me off, but if you’d told me after those first few scenes of penguin research that, by the novel’s close, its thrilling action and high intensity would have me gasping for breath, I would have been skeptical. That’s what’s impressive about this novel, though: it occupies so much literary territory. It is at once a romance, an adventure story, an environmental polemic, and a keen study of just how animalistic humans are.
Angela and Robert each become entwined with Neil Cameron, aka Aeneas, captain of The Arctic Tern and head of the Cetacean Defense Alliance: a band of quasi-pirates (or terrorists, depending on your point of view) who make life miserable for whalers whenever possible, sinking ships and fouling propellers. Angela falls in love with Aeneas when, evading the authorities, he crashes his small boat on the shore near her research station. Meanwhile, Robert is on the hunt for him, not so enthusiastically aiming to serve an arrest warrant and bring him to trial.
To give away more of the novel’s plot would be a disservice to future readers. Suffice it to say that there is one, and more of one than I’m used to seeing in modern, literary fiction. It is a welcome surprise. The Tourist Trail‘s three hundred pages read like one hundred and fifty. It is a reader’s pleasure, due in large part to the meticulous control with which Yunker commands his language, as evidenced here: “Now, as he leaned his head back in his seat, [Robert] felt the memories returning. He could see the slowly undulating horizon of ice as he hovered low behind the controls of a helicopter, looking for a Zodiac, a break in the ice, a bright red parka.” In this passage, the simple contrast between red and white, between the parka and the ice, alerts the reader ominously, and quite beautifully, to a defining moment in Robert’s past: a lover lost to the sea. Again and again, Yunker’s ability to pinpoint and isolate the urgent details of a situation provides a path for the reader.
The plot does become too convoluted in the novel’s third and final part, after Angela and Robert are joined in prominence by Ethan Downes, a young computer tech whose tragically lost love mirrors the other characters’ so closely that it is difficult to think of him as more than a sideshow, albeit a moving one. Yet even here, Yunker’s polished prose serviceably guides the reader through this complicated drama to a satisfying, and exciting, conclusion. The only shortcoming of the novel’s excellent language is that it doesn’t always extend to the dialogue. Character voices sometimes feel interchangeable, and Yunker’s fine exposition has the tendency to creep inside quotation marks, giving the dialogue an unnatural quality.
Deserving special attention is the deftness with which Yunker navigates the volatile polemic at the novel’s heart. His prominent characters are, to a man, violent (some quite violent) defenders of animal rights, at least on occasion. Nevertheless, Yunker’s narration presents the gruesome images of whales harpooned and penguins caught up in the long lines of fishing trawlers with an even, observational tone. The reader, thankfully, can draw his or her own conclusions about right and wrong. And if in a few instances this admirable lack of didacticism falters (as during an overly contrived exchange between Angela and a cruise guest about the sustainability of the Patagonian toothfish population), then the sheer amount of faltering avoided more than makes up for it.
That, also, is the bottom line of the novel in toto. For all the successful plotting, I forgive the missteps. For all the gripping, complex human (and animal) relationships, I overlook the ones that fall short. For all the richness of emotion palpable in the characters, I overcome volleys of unconvincing dialogue. The Tourist Trail is an enjoyable and frequently fascinating narrative about the consequences of taking what one wants, be it love or a stand or something in-between. It is the story of a handful of people who for most of their lives “stopped at the water’s edge, while others kept going.” As they enter Aeneas’ world of passion, drive, and ambition, they struggle to keep up in his wake. But for reader and character alike, the desire to push forward, be it in the novel or in life, is hard to deny.
The Tourist Trail is published by Byte Level Books, 2010.
Collin Grabarek, fiction editor.