Sunday, October 30, 2011

'Nightwoods' worth a look

Had something of a "circle of life" moment over the weekend, at least in a literary sense.

Read Charles Frazier's new novel, "Nightwoods," while enjoying R&R out of town at the lake for the final trip of the season.

(P.S. I am still thawing out. Thirty-degree mornings will do that to you in lieu of central heat. But I digress.)

I flashed back to spring 1998 -- incredible as it seems, 13 1/2 years ago -- when I spent a week at the lake reading Frazier's breakout first novel, "Cold Mountain." I found the book by chance, before the hype. Back then I used to read USA Today while on campus at UT. A reviewer had raved. So, I put it on my Christmas list and saved it for spring break.

"Cold Mountain" was one of the first books I ever read for pleasure that I had to fight with. ("For Whom the Bell Tolls" is the other that comes to mind.) I needed a dictionary through half of it, looking up words on the internet in those quaint dial-up days.

Even though I thought Frazier was hitting the reader over the head with the Homeric parallels, I loved "Cold Mountain," though he tended to write like Thomas Wolfe on speed.

Over the weekend I finished Frazier's latest. Compared to "Cold Mountain," "Nightwoods" is downright slim at 250 pages. Unlike his Civil War-era novel and his somewhat disappointing follow-up, "Thirteen Moons" (to which I'm going to give another chance later this year), "Nightwoods" is set in the 20th century. Sometime in the early '60.

It focuses on Luce, short for Lucinda, who has been beaten down by small-town life and a traumatizing event from early adulthood. Her mother left her years ago, her father is a distant, deadbeat deputy, and her sister has just been murdered.

Luce is living a hermit's existence as the caretaker of a rundown, shutdown lake resort. It gets lonely, the 3 a.m. kind of lonely, but she has her freedom and the glow of the late night radio. That life is shattered when the state shows up with her dead sister's kids in tow.

She gets another unexpected guest in the person of the grandson of the guy who owned the resort. It's his inheritance and he's thinking of selling. But he does a double take when he sees Luce, suddenly remembering the teenage girl at a swimming pool who briefly but brightly stirred his pubescent soul.

Meanwhile, her sister's husband, who is also her sister's killer, shows up, thinking Luce might have some cash he thinks should be his. Then he learns the kids are around, too. Can't leave any witnesses.

The last thing I was expecting from Charles Frazier was a page-turner, but that's what he delivers with "Nightwoods," in the best sense of what that means. He reels in his literary flourishes long enough to craft a taut little thriller. Frazier fans will find plenty to cheer, as will any newbies.

I enjoyed spending the better part of Saturday with him, even if it also stirred up memories of a long-gone spring, and a novel I enjoyed a little better than this one.

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