Why does Cold Mountain’s Charles Frazier’s new book make me think about the joys of dining at a popular restaurant in Carrboro near Chapel Hill?
Read on, and when I explain, you will understand why I think the new book, “Nightwoods,” is going to give Frazier a host of new readers, ones who never read “Cold Mountain” or “Thirteen Moons.”
What does his new book have for these readers that is other books lacked? That is the wrong question.
The attraction of “Nightwoods,” compared to his earlier books, will be that it “lacks” the number of pages and words that filled “Cold Mountain” and “Thirteen Moons.”
“Nightwoods” is Frazier’s gift to readers who like their novels to be compact with a story line that moves along briskly.
Frazier’s devoted fans need not worry. He has not abandoned them or given up his skill in delivering lovely, engaging, descriptive prose or his development of richly complex characters, the qualities that made reading his first two novels so rewarding.
He continues to bring wonderful literary food to our tables, just in a smaller portion.
Now, about the restaurant. Its name is Glasshalfull. It features carefully prepared delicious food, elegantly served, in very small, half-sized, portions. Sometimes eating light is much more satisfying than the overwhelming portions we get in other good restaurants.
Frazier’s “Nightwoods” is his literary glass half full, a smaller portion than his full size, but equally delicious. Maybe it is not exactly a glass half full,” but rather a smaller glass, filled to the top.
Another feature of “Nightwoods” that may attract new readers is its setting in the early 1960s, a time that is not historical, as in the Civil War or Cherokee Removal times of the earlier books. In the new book there are plentiful reminders of our own memories– cars, telephones, cheerleaders, movies, beauty queen contests, clear channel Nashville radio, and James Brown.
Yes, James Brown! His music gives comfort to the lovely, wounded, reclusive Luce, the book’s central character, who has lived all alone as the caretaker of a deserted mountain resort hotel.
Listen to Frazier describe her situation: “At bedtime, lamps out, the rest of the big room faded into darkness, only the fire and the radio’s tubes sending a friendly glow up the nearby log walls. Luce finally fell asleep every night listening to WLAC out of Nashville. Little Willie John, Howlin’ Wolf, Maurice Williams, James Brown. Magic singers proclaiming hope and despair into the dark. Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville and caught by the radio way up here at the mountain lake to keep her company.”
What is it about music and James Brown that haunts our favorite 60-year-old North Carolina authors? In Clyde Edgerton’s new book, “The Night Train,” also set in the 1960s, a 17-year-old white boy in a strictly segregated small North Carolina town loves the music so much that he tries to “become James Brown.”
Both Frazier and Edgerton proudly confess their own love of 1960s music.
Back to “Nightwoods” and Luce. The 1960s Luce reminded me of the 1860s Ada and Ruby from “Cold Mountain.” Luce is beautiful, kind, and lost like the Charleston-raised Ada. And Luce is, like Ruby, mountain-tough, resourceful, and stubborn.
Other compelling characters are essential to Frazier’s story and the detours and sub-plots that he has carefully constructed. But the basic plot is the ancient one, good vs. evil.
The good is represented by Luce and the two little children of her murdered sister. Evil is Bud, the husband of that sister and her murderer. In “Nightwoods” Bud’s threatening presence puts danger to Luce and the children on every page, making the reader wonder whether or not Frazier will, this time, let good prevail.
Or even if he will let you know for sure.