Monday, October 3, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NIGHTWOODS” by Charles Frazier (Hodder/Hachette, $39:99)

I had the pleasure of reviewing Charles Frazier’s first and best-known novel Cold Mountain when it appeared in 1997. It’s set in the dying days of the American Civil War and chronicles a deserting Confederate soldier’s walk back home, through the ravaged and nightmarish landscape of a defeated South, to reach the woman he wants to marry. (It was made into a reasonably good movie, though not entirely like the novel.) I remember praising the novel for the way it refuses to accept sentimental stereotypes of the Old South but also avoids an easy cynicism. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful historical novel, and they are rarities. It won some prestigious literary awards.

Charles Frazier does not rush his work. After Cold Mountain he wrote the rambling Thirteen Moons.  His latest novel, Nightwoods, is only his third book in fourteen years. He is a Southerner. All his novels are set in his native North Carolina, with much prominence given to small communities living among the mountains. (I’m tempted to call them “hillbillies”, but that might not be the right term). He likes to describe the landscape in detail, and isn’t averse to dropping in general reflections on the ways of history.

I imagined that he would continue to mine historical subjects like Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons. But Nightwoods isn’t exactly an historical piece. It’s set in living memory – sometime about the early 1960s to judge by the movies mentioned as  playing at the local movie house (Thunder Road, The Defiant Ones, Light in the Piazza). Bootleggers and lawmen and honest citizens drive around in Fords and Chevys and the odd eccentric Vauxhall. Yet in a sense, it really is the distant past, as the chief determinant of modern culture, television, has only begun to make inroads into the remote North Carolina community. (There’s one fleeting mention of somebody watching The Twilight Zone). In the mountains, this is still a time when shady characters can drop out of sight by simply moving to the next town, police surveillance is unsophisticated, and society is bound by church, bar, local radio stations and a weekly movie.
Though the plot is different, this novel has the same configuration of man questing after desired woman that held together Cold Mountain. In Nightwoods the honest landowning farmer Stubblefield falls in love with, and hesitantly courts, the ageing Luce (Lucinda). Stubblefield is a soulful, mature chap (he loves listening to Mile Davis’s Kind of Blue). But Luce is a damaged and unhappy woman who has essentially withdrawn from society and lives by care-taking a large, disused tourist lodge. We discover, long before Stubblefield does, that Luce was raped as a young woman and has been hyper-cautious about men ever since. Nevertheless, a kind of courtship happens, hesitant, strained and with Luce giving nothing away easily. Her curt replies to Stubblefield, masking a growing attachment, are among the best things in the novel

Overlaying this, however, there is a plot reminding me of a film which just might have played at the local movie house at the time the story is set. I mean Charles Laughton’s 1955 film The Night of the Hunter. You might recall that was the one in which a psychotic preacher (played by Robert Mitchum) chases after and threatens two young children, in quest of money he believes they have hidden. The two young children are protected by a tough older woman (played by Lillian Gish).

In Nightwoods, Luce takes charge of two children Dolores and Frank, whose mother, Luce’s sister Lily, has been murdered by a brute called Bud. The two children are almost mute and completely uncommunicative. There is the strong implication that they have been sexually abused by Bud. When Bud gets loose, he comes looking for the kids, thinking they have hidden money. The tough and independent Luce protects them, with the courting Stubblefield drawn into the situation.

There are some things in this novel that Frazier does extremely well.

One is his account of the way Luce attempts to socialise the traumatised kids, before Bud returns to make their lives even more complicated. Her experiments in social education, her failures and renewed efforts could have carried the novel on their own, without the more melodramatic elements of the plot.

Another is the vivid delineation of the nasty Bud, whose viciousness seems to come with a strong death wish, expressed in religious language about “the blood of the lamb”. He buddies up with a bent and Benzedrine-popping cop called Lit. They are most convincing and repulsive villains and naturally there is a quota of explicit violence.

There’s also the strong sense of time and place carefully observed.

But Nightwoods has its downside. Without dropping in any spoilers, I can say that we are not told about a key and important relationship between two characters until well into the novel, by which time it comes to seem like one of those tricks which  crime writers pull when they withhold essential information to provide “surprise” twists. I can also say that the ending – especially a part set around a huge gravel pit – creaks with overt symbolism, and there are moments when Frazier lapses into attitudinising about history and community and the wildlife of the mountains. The keen observation of the novel comes, regrettably, with doses of cliché.

As the awards and the favourable reviews show, some people love Charles Frazier’s work. But, in America, there is also a strong group of critics who can’t stand him. They accuse him of peddling tales ripe for Hollywood, and especially of pandering to more sentimental women readers, with his themes of love won after many obstacles and of strong women finding good men. A New York Times review described Thirteen Moons as  “cornmeal mush” while another reviewer called it “a disgrace”. If you are so inclined, you can have the fun of ferreting out these negative reviews on line.

For myself, I don’t see Frazier in these extreme terms. I think he is a novelist who has so far produced one excellent novel (Cold Mountain), one unfocussed one (Thirteen Moons) and now one that gives some of his strongest and some of his weakest qualities. Fine evocative description and good sense of character, but melodramatic plot development.

On the whole I enjoyed reading Nightwoods and think it should win a large audience.

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