Charles Frazier seems bemused that his new novel, Nightwoods, has been described as a backwoods thriller or Appalachian gothic with a touch of Flannery O’Connor. To be honest, he says, it’s more the influence of mountain murder ballads and film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s that shaped the gritty, character-driven, honed-down narrative, a distinct departure from Frazier’s previous and much longer works, Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons. This novel also steps forward in time to the early ‘60s, an innocent period just prior to the culture-altering Kennedy assassination.
Not that admirers of this native son’s graceful literary style and descriptive gifts will be disappointed, as Nightwoods flows at a carefully measured pace that subtly reveals its characters and builds suspense over just 258 pages. But unlike most contemporary thrillers, Frazier carefully avoids the conventions of that genre, sometimes edging close but swerving away to push in an unexpected direction. An inexplicable black hole in the woods, in other hands would be an obvious harbinger of things to come; for Frazier it’s merely an unexplained thing that mountains harbor, “a deep cylinder of still air encompassed by dark rock.”
And it’s the unexplained and unusual, combined with the known elements of the natural environment, that intrigue Luce, an embittered young woman who has pulled away from the world and choosen to live in relative seclusion as caretaker of a long-abandoned lodge that once was a summer retreat for lowland wealthy. Luce recognizes that the town across the lake views her more as a squatter after the lodge’s owner dies. But she envisions it’s her duty to keep the place “from growing over with kudzu” while maintaining it as her sanctuary, the lake a protective barrier from troubling memories that drove her to conclude “you couldn’t count on anybody.”
Her unburdened seclusion ends abruptly when Luce finds herself the unlikely custodian of her murdered sister’s two young children, who neither speak nor respond to anything she attempts. According to Frazier, while Luce is the character who emerged for him during the writing process and took over the story, it was the arrival of the twins that stimulated the ultimate direction. “They literally popped into my head in the form of a sentence,” he recalls, and that hauntingly concise string of words became the foreboding opening of the book: “Luce’s stranger children were small and beautiful and violent.”
The children, Dolores and Frank, indeed prove fierce and “loved fire above all elements of creation,” forcing Luce into constant vigilance even as she tries to connect with the twins who communicate wordlessly with one another. The nature of their problems are hinted at but never specified. Frazier says his intent was to “describe, not diagnose.”
It is revealed that the children witnessed the murder of their mother, Lily, by her second husband, Bud, a hardscrabble small-time crook with a violent streak, who “met a pretty widow with bad judgment and two small children.” In Frazier’s hands, Bud is portrayed not as the evil antagonist common in many thrillers, but a flawed man-child, both scarred and scared who considers the world rigged against him. He knifes Lily when she hides ill-gotten money from him, and it’s that cash that drives him toward Luce and the children after he beats the murder rap, aided by a wily small-town lawyer.
“Bud is a guy who takes advantage of things as he finds them, but still isn’t in command as he’d like to be,” Frazier says. “My daughter looked at an early draft, and said she’d read about Bud and find herself laughing, but then realize he’s a horrible person.”
As Bud stalks Luce and the children, he becomes entwined with Lit, a local deputy and Luce’s distant father. It becomes a surreal, strange relationship between two loners, with drugs as a unifying interest. At the same time, the wayward grandson of the lodge’s deceased owner arrives to survey his inheritance and discovers Luce, on whom he had an unrequited high-school crush. She sees him first as a threat to her chosen existence, but gradually allows him closer to her and the children.
As always, Frazier weaves the natural environment intimately into the story, demonstrating his deep-rooted affection for his native North Carolina mountains. The former university professor was born in Asheville (”I love to say I was born in Biltmore Village”) and grew up in Andrews, where he still spends a portion of the year writing and traversing the woods on his mountain bike. Frazier allows the natural world to become a vital character that has both direct and indirect influence on the story and those within it.
The setting for this book, as with his previous novels, is masterfully rendered, a place where fallen yellow poplar leaves rest “like upturned hands on the dark pavement.” For Luce, this is a haven where she finds solace by feeling the dirt beneath her feet and observing the passing nuances of life. For another character, it becomes a sinister place: “Under the hemlock, everything lies dark and quiet. Needles not rustling in the breeze like leaves, just a hissing in the air … Listen hard and you hear a sound like the ticking of many wristwatches, the fall of dead needles, building in tiny increments a deep thousand-year bed to kill weaker things that try to grow underneath.”
Frazier acknowledges it’s place, not action, that fuels his writing. “I never start with a plot,” he says. “I always start with a place in mind and try to find a plot. I don’t do a lot of planning, but follow the leads until something feels right.”
That rightness is evident in Nightwoods, where the rhythmic beauty of language underscores a darkly complex and haunting tale that reveals the twists and inner-workings of characters that ring as true as the woods and mountains around them.
— Gary Carter is the author of Eliot’s Tale and a freelance writer based in Asheville.
who: Charles Frazier
what: Discussion of Nightwoods with onstage interview by Brian Lee Knopp
where: UNCA Humanities Lecture Hall
when: Friday, Oct. 21 (7 p.m. Tickets are free with the purchase of a copy of Nightwoods — 1 ticket per book. http://www.malaprops.com)