Through no fault of his own, the North Carolina writer Charles Frazier fell from everybody’s favorite success story to a symbol of the publishing industry’s profligacy. After he came out of nowhere in 1997 to sell millions of copies of a Civil War odyssey called “Cold Mountain,” New York publishers bid like drunken sailors on a one-page outline for Frazier’s second book. Random House trounced all opponents at auction by tossing off an absurd $8 million advance, the kind of money that might have paid for manuscripts from hundreds of promising literary novelists. No one was particularly surprised — though some were fiendishly delighted — when the book Frazier eventually produced, “Thirteen Moons,” received jeering reviews and sold far fewer copies than his debut.
So here we are with Book No. 3, after the whiplash of critical opinion and those incredulous stories of financial misjudgment have faded a bit. Will Frazier’s new novel, “Nightwoods,” redeem his reputation (and his publisher’s faith), or will it only confirm claims that he’s a deep-fat-fried Faulkner who won the lottery on his first time out?
Sorry, haters, but this is a fantastic book: an Appalachian Gothic with a low-level fever that runs alternately warm and chilling. Frazier has left the 19th century and the picaresque form to produce a cleverly knitted thriller about a tough young woman in the 1960s who has given up on the people of her small town and gone to live alone in the woods. Much of the terror and pleasure of “Nightwoods” comes from detecting the ligaments that connect these wounded folks, who don’t always realize how they’re connected until a knife is already in flight.
For almost three years, Luce has worked as the caretaker for an abandoned summer lodge an hour away from the nearest village. The trip takes only 20 minutes across the lake, but Luce burned her rotten boat on the shore one evening, further evidence that she’s turned away from everyone in favor of a silent, monastic life. Now nothing is more important to her than defending her freedom from the requirements and conveniences of others. (There must be something in the water because she’s an only slightly less rugged version of the young female loner we saw earlier this summer in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River,” one of my favorite novels of the year.) “What good does the world do you?” Luce asks herself from bitter experience. At night she nestles in the lodge’s voluminous lobby, appointed with “mildew-spotted furniture and tall full bookshelves and huge floor-standing radio with a tuning ring like a steering wheel to a Packard.”
Her melancholy peace is shattered in the opening pages when a social worker drops off her orphaned niece and nephew, twins she’s never met, who are “small and beautiful and violent.” (Don’t leave them alone with the chickens . . . .) Hollywood will inevitably muck up these two kids with sentimentality, but in Frazier’s pages they’re just right: weird and almost feral, unwilling to speak or even make eye contact, just one turn of the screw away from spooky. Intuiting Sartre’s dark truth, they’ve already discovered that “horror is other people.” The state doctor thought they might be feebleminded; they cut themselves and start fires and rock on the porch for hours “looking glazed into the distance.” Caring for self-destructive young trauma victims like this is exhausting and frightening, and Frazier notes that Luce “didn’t even really like the children, much less love them,” but she “didn’t have to love them. She just had to take care of them.” And she does — ferociously.
In alternating chapters, we follow the bloody path of a thug named Bud, “a handsome man, at least in the retrograde style of the expired southern fifties he still loved so much.” Brutal and cowardly, Bud is a bully one moment, a flatterer the next, determined always to keep his violence spontaneous to avoid charges of premeditated murder. His only solace is a recurring dream “involving Jesus’s blood bathing the whole world and making it fresh and clean.” He’s convinced that the little twins know where some money is hidden, and even if they don’t, he can’t have them talking about what they saw him do to their mom. That sets up the plot’s simple predatory thrills, but Frazier keeps the tension elevated by winding the fuse around a number of dark corners — secrets in these characters’ pasts and the fact that all of them feel as if they’re “falling into some game with rules everybody knows but you.”
More human than one of Cormac McCarthy’s inexorable killing machines, Bud is closer to the wicked imagination of Flannery O’Connor, and as reviewer Robert Goolrick noted in The Post recently, “If the work is grotesque, and there’s blood, and Jesus is mentioned occasionally,” — check, check, check — “almost any writer will earn comparisons to that master of the violent, redneck, religious gothic novel.” Frazier is ultimately too mannered and romantic to be a disciple of O’Connor, but he’s certainly spent some time on her porch.
Fortunately, he’s tempered the corny hick-talk of “Thirteen Moons” and tamed somewhat his tendency toward grandiosity. In the context of this new woodland thriller, when he invokes the “dead in the service of implacable history,” he casts a doleful spell rather than inspiring an exasperated snort. His narrator’s voice in “Nightwoods” is tinged with an antique tone that can sound solemn but also wry when the occasion demands. That quality of wit, laced through homespun aphorisms and good-ole-boy boasts, makes a marvelous counterpoint to the story’s underlying suspense. Moving from character to character, he channels their thoughts, allowing Luce’s flinty determination, Bud’s deadly self-pity, and even the children’s otherworldly anxiety to come through with rich clarity.
A mountain — yes, a cold one — plays a central role in this superbly paced story, but otherwise Frazier has moved on from his earlier work. His fans will be pleased, his detractors brought up short, and all of us should be grateful for another very fine novel to read this fall.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Charles Frazier
Random House. 259 pp. $26