Thursday, October 20, 2011


Nightwoods, Charles Frazier, Random House Inc, 2011, 259 pp

I love Charles Frazier. Cold Mountain, the novel, was amazing. Forget the movie. Thirteen Moons was under appreciated because Cold Mountain was so huge. He just gets to something in his characters that no one else does in quite the same way. Possibly it is a Southern thing but also it is just purely great writing from a guy who has the soul of a poet. Both of the previous novels were historical (Civil War and Trail of Tears) but I don't think it was from history that he derived his power as a writer but from the depth and breadth of his characterizations and his ability to bring the natural world surrounding those characters so vividly to life. Though Nightwoods takes place in the 1960s, he has lost none of that power.

Lit and Lola: Lit is that kind of soldier who never moves on. World War II and its grueling mix of boredom, discomfort and violence have never been matched since then for Lit, not to mention the quality of the drugs available. Lola is the teen bride and mother who would rather drink, party and fight with her husband than raise babies.

Luce and Lily: The daughters of these two, who were abandoned by their mother and neglected by their father; who grew up destined to be harmed by men.

Such potential caricatures of dysfunctional life take on roles suitable for a parable in the hands of Frazier. When Lily's husband Bud, a character straight out of Flannery O'Connor territory, kills her in cold blood, the state dumps Lily's fraternal twin youngsters on Luce. These kids have obvious signs of abuse, something to which Luce is no stranger. She herself is living practically like a hermit in a rundown former summer lodge as a nominal caretaker, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. When she learns that Bud has been acquitted of the murder, she knows such will not be her destiny.

Charles Frazier takes a good half of the novel setting this up but every few pages he drops in another startling fact. By the time it becomes clear that Bud is the psychopath bent on ruining Luce's entire family, I was so wrought up and unbalanced there was nothing left to do but read on, never knowing who would live and who would die.

The problem then was that Frazier's writing is so fine, it needs to be savored. These people are as unique as all human beings are; not one of them can be wholly admired or detested. The mountains, the weather, the flora, close around the story, as much a part of the tale as any other aspect. And those kids--my goodness.

The question in all of Charles Frazier's novels has to do with how our humanity to others can possibly survive when one insanely evil person can ruin it for everyone around him. Bud was made to go to church as a child, where his natural born criminal instincts left him open to the message that the sacred shedding of blood mattered above all else. The proffered answer in Nightwoods is that shared blood can redeem a lost soul now and then, but not always and not for good.

(Nightwoods is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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