Having lived for a few years in the mountains of rural North Carolina, I'd developed a kinship with certain southern writers (Ron Rash, Sharyn McCrumb) and bands (Avett Brothers, Drive-by Truckers). Twenty pages into Charles Frazier's lush and lively third novel, I found myself grateful for his ability to recreate the look and feel of the land my family and I once called home. When the light is just right, the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains can be warm and stunning places. But the light can shift slightly and the woods suddenly feel creepy and unsafe, and you think you're being watched or followed.
That same sense of unease and discomfort pervades Nightwoods, a tale with a menacing edge that pulls the reader along in a style that reminded me of Denis Johnson's Nobody Move--that is, a master trying his hand at a leaner, meaner story. In this case, the story is set in the 1960s, in an unnamed region of Frazier's home state. After two Civil War-era novels, he manages the change of century quite well.
A woman named Luce is living in a rural lodge, hiding from her own demons, when she is suddenly forced to raise her sister's two wild young children. Neither child has spoken a word since witnessing their mother's brutal murder, and they've developed a fondness for breaking things and starting fires. Hardly a word is out of place. Here are Luce's niece and nephew during a tour of her henhouse: "The girl found the egg first. She held it cupped in her palm and studied it. Then she smashed her other fist against it and smeared the mess on her brother's face." Gone With The Wind this ain't.
These mute, trouble-making kids are among Frazier's finest characters, and when their ne'er-do-well father is acquitted and released from jail, the action flares. Frazier toys with earthy themes--fire and heat (danger!); water and dirt (life!)--without being overt or precious about it. Displaying a skill for sharp dialogue and unexpected humor, as well as a powerful ability to depict the scents and sounds of loamy Carolina backwoods, Frazier has crafted an impressive narrative, proving that his National Book Award-winning Cold Mountain was no fluke.
Suggested soundtrack while reading: The Drive-By Truckers' "Southern Rock Opera."