BOOK REVIEW: ‘Nightwoods’

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NIGHTWOODS
By Charles Frazier
Random House, $26 259 pages

Novelist Charles Frazier clearly agrees with Robert Frost’s description of woods as “lovely, dark and deep,” especially the dark and deep part. In “Cold Mountain,” his blockbuster debut novel (1997), which sold 3 zillion copies and was made into a very successful movie, Mr. Frazier had his protagonist, a wounded Confederate soldier, turn his back on the war and walk, Odysseus-like, from his hospital bed in Raleigh, N.C., all the way home to his true love in Cold Mountain, N.C. It takes him several months, but he makes it.

A decade later, in “Thirteen Moons,” his second novel, the protagonist’s journey is mythic rather than physical, and the book, to put it politely, did not meet with anywhere near the success of its predecessor. In “Nightwoods,” Mr. Frazier takes us up to the mountaintop again, and the book fairly sings. If you liked his first book, you will love his third, I think.

The only reason you might not love it is that it’s more than a tad weird. While nature, as Mr. Frazier depicts it, is truly lovely, the characters are dark and deep - and, on occasion, either too good or too bad to be true. Luce, the major figure, was lovely once, but even though she is still relatively young and attractive, she’s swiftly becoming a recluse. That’s how Luce chooses to deal with the murder of her sister Lily by - Luce is certain but cannot prove - her no-account husband, Bud. Ever since the murder, Bud has been, as the mountain people put it, in the wind.

Unemployed by choice as much as by circumstances, Luce occasionally cleans the lodge, the main building of a going-to-seed lakefront resort owned by a local rich man, old Mr. Stubblefield. When he dies, she moves into the lodge as a self-appointed caretaker of the once-popular but long-out-of-business property.

Being cut off from society is just fine with the self-sufficient Luce, who basically lives off the land, but after her sister is killed, there’s no one to take care of Lily’s young twins, who were so badly traumatized by witnessing their mother’s murder they no longer speak. Luce takes them in and tries to resocialize them, which is like the semiblind being led by the purposely blind.

The twins, whom I’d guess to be about six (the author never says how old they are) not only don’t speak but also love to sneak off and set fires. So Luce has a hard job. But she, who won’t let anyone get too close to her emotionally, loves them in her own slightly odd way and tries to do right by them. Bit by tiny bit, she makes some progress.

Then Bud reappears, in search of a large amount of money he stole and Lily took from him and hid, causing him to kill her. When he hears Luce has the children, he reasons that she also might have “his” money, and he plots to get it back, even if it means doing in all three of them.

Also reappearing on the scene is old Mr. Stubblefield’s playboy grandson, who has inherited the lodge and the land. He’s about to sell it all off, at a loss, but then he visits the lodge and, seeing Luce, remembers he had what used to be called a serious crush on her when they were in high school. The flame quickly reignites, and instead of selling the property, he becomes protector to Luce and the twins. The only problem is that he really isn’t suited for the role. Encountering Bud, he tries to fight him, but all he gets for his trouble is a badly cut hand.

When Bud sneaks into the lodge looking for the money, the children see him and, recognizing their mother’s killer, scream and run like you-know-what. Ever the resourceful survivors, they take food, a neighbor’s pony, and, of course, matches and kerosene, and head up the mountain. (Cue Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”) Bud goes after them, and so do Luce and Stubblefield the Younger (Mr. Frazier never gives him a first name.) A bad end, but not a bad ending, is in store for at least one of the characters in this beguiling novel.

Charles Frazier has several strengths. His character development is quirky but very effective, and his descriptive powers are, as usual, first-rate. Here’s one small example. The twins are on a vantage point high up the mountain: “Below them, a hawk floats on a cushion of air, and the children look down on it, studying the novelty of sunlight glinting off the tops of its spread wings, the brown feathers like bronze. With two strokes, it rises and sweeps over them, close enough that they hear the sound of its wings cutting the air, a faint rattle of feathers.”

“Nightwoods” re-establishes Mr. Frazier’s reputation as a fine storyteller who writes beautifully.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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