There is something admirable about Charles Frazier's steadfastness and commitment. He was 45 years old when his debut novel, Cold Mountain, was published. The book sold millions of copies, beat out Don DeLillo's weighty Underworld for the National Book Award and was made into a hit movie.
Frazier could have retired right then and there, or moved on to other things—and you wouldn't have blamed him. But his new novel, Nightwoods, takes place in the very same North Carolina mountains where he grew up and lives, and where Cold Mountain (1996) and its follow-up, Thirteen Moons (2006), were both set. It's as if he started a little local business, watched it explode quickly and far beyond his expectations, yet resisted the pull to expand into other industries or to produce more quickly for the ravenous public. In 15 years, Frazier has published just three novels, each one a slowly milled piece of literary Appalachiana.
Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons were set in the 19th century. Nightwoods is set in the more recent past: the early 1960s, just before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that mythological time of supposed American innocence. Unsurprisingly, that innocence is put under siege in Nightwoods, whose narrative provides maximum danger and anxiety. Luce is a woman in her mid-20s who lives in and looks after an unvisited old lodge in the North Carolina mountains. The book begins just as she becomes a caretaker of another sort: Her sister Lily has been murdered, and Luce takes charge of Lily's two young children, who have been traumatized into an almost autistic muteness by what is intimated to have been sexual violence.
The perpetrator of the abuse and Lily's murder is her second husband, Bud, the children's stepfather. Bud, sprung from jail by a canny lawyer, isn't finished committing crimes. It happens that Lily had squirreled away many thousands of dollars that Bud had come into by nefarious means, and it isn't long before he slithers into town to reclaim the money, which probably means killing his stepchildren. (Here Nightwoods takes on a strong resemblance to the 1955 Robert Mitchum thriller The Night of the Hunter.) Throughout the book, the reader's anxiety is kept high by a sort of ground bass of that most plaintive and frankly manipulative of questions: Who will think of the children?
Meanwhile, the resolutely solitary Luce finds herself getting courted by a fellow called Stubblefield, with whom she shares multiple connections important to the narrative. Stubblefield assumes the role of protector as the vicious Bud draws ever nearer, until finally the inevitable confrontation in the forest of the title comes about in the final chapters.
This is all boilerplate stuff. The characters are types, the plot elements are secondhand and mechanically deployed, and the prose, while impressively showy, tends to be "simultaneously portentous, folksy and cloying ... written almost exclusively to create effects," as Adam Goodheart complained in his New York Times review of Thirteen Moons. Frazier sticks to his style as stubbornly as he does to his Smokies, giving his characters thoughts such as:
Listening to a radio station out of Red Cloud reporting wheat prices, and then Spade Cooley followed by the Sons of the Pioneers so as to capture in just two songs the exuberance and melancholy of the famed lone prairie with its match-strike daylight and night skies deep as the mind of God.
Despite such overwrought prose, it's no trouble to read right through this short book. Frazier has a natural dramatic instinct, and Nightwoods is a shrewd piece of writing—shrewder still for its I-see-what-you-did-there literary and cultural references. There are a couple of mentions of the movie The Defiant Ones (another mismatched couple, shackled together by circumstance, in danger—at least Frazier didn't choose Night of the Hunter). At another point, Stubblefield invites Luce to see the movie The Light in the Piazza, based on a novella by Frazier's fellow Tar Heel author Elizabeth Spencer. (That book, like Cold Mountain, became a franchise of sorts, spawning a movie and then a musical.)
And when Luce, Stubblefield and the kids pile into the car for a long drive to Florida, fleeing Bud, Frazier has them stay overnight in Milledgeville, Ga., a small town perhaps best known as the childhood home (and burial place) of Flannery O'Connor, whose brand of gothic Southern violence Frazier borrows from liberally in Nightwoods.
With a key difference, though: O'Connor was a Christian moralist, and her near-addiction to violent conclusions was in the spirit of revelation and salvation. Not so with Frazier, who over and over repeats a bitter nihilism: "Repent was a lost word in their lexicon ... No looking back ... Nothing changed what already happened" (p. 45); "But don't look back. You make your mistakes, and then fuck it. You don't dwell, you move forward" (p. 63); "Always looking for any opportunity to cast our sad little package of hope into a future we won't inhabit" (p. 90); "Just live every [day] as it came and not let people intrude on you" (p. 139); "The awful dailyness of life" (p. 152); "Life is mostly shit, and it heaps on more when you're already so loaded down you think you can't go on" (p. 195).
Frazier redeems this hopeless despair by the amoral expedient of warding off pure evil by any means necessary. You are innocent, but the bogeyman comes for you and yours. Take up arms and fight.