Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Written from a limited third-person point of view, “No Trace” remains something of a puzzle for the reader to piece together. One’s awareness of events unfolds so as to parallel that of the father. Readers see the evidence and learn the clues only as Ernest does; and Madden provides little insight into Gordon’s motivations for killing himself with the grenade, or his father’s response to this tragedy.

The pivotal action of the plot, Gordon’s suicide, happens before the story opens. As is perhaps the case with all suicides, survivors are left only to ponder the question of why. There are many subtle clues, such as the poster of the Buddhist monk in Saigon burning himself on a street, the music cover of an album by the Grateful Dead, and Ernest’s numerous references to an unknown person who died twenty years earlier in a fire on campus. More direct and clear-cut evidence is also provided by the writer, particularly the letters from Jason after his arrival in the battlefields of Vietnam.

Juxtaposed against these clues is the author’s use of symbolism. Among these is the return of the seventeen-year locusts, caught up in a death cycle that follows the pattern set by father and son. Other symbols include the ascent and descent of the stairs, the cigarette burn in the desk made by Ernest years before, and the garbage dump itself in the last paragraphs. Gordon’s vomit, dirt, and semen symbolically encapsulate the story’s theme of wasted life.

“No Trace” is less about Gordon’s death than about Ernest’s reaction to that death. The truth cannot be hidden—it can only be reshuffled to a more central location of stench and deterioration. Ultimately, the wasteland is not so much the battlefields of Vietnam as it is the city dump of American life.