In a tale set to the tune of Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go” that’s told as if shown through a vintage Bell & Howell movie projector and with an odor of McCallum’s scotch from a previous century on a Roadhouse floor, Charles Frazier is back. At just the right time of year — when goldenrod and Joe Pye weed are in full bloom here in the North Carolina mountains, just as it is in the book — one wonders if the scheduled (Sept. 27) autumn release of Nightwoods is some kind of publishing coincidence or something planned. Timing is everything.
In what can only be called a dark trip down memory lane reminiscent of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, or Ron Rash’s Serena, complete with rape, murder, incest, crime and cursing, it might seem callous or insensitively strange to say that reading Nightwoods was “fun,” but it was. And it must have been fun for Charles Frazier to write, as well — going back and dragging up the past of his mountain boyhood — just a ridgeline or two over from where I, too, was growing up at the same time. Reading his descriptions and references sent me straight back to my own boyhood. All the memorable 1950s and 60s references are there: old Nash Ramblers, Cheerwine and moon-pies, bootleggers, illegal bars in dry counties, summer vacations at Myrtle Beach, hand-cranked ice cream, no TV reception, two and three digit phone numbers, The Pied Piper, Jack and the Beanstalk, Royal Crown pomade, rabbit-foot key chains, vast national forests, Hurst shifters with an eight-ball, drive-ins, dowsing sticks, Cherokee fish weirs, Indian trails marked with stone cairns and trail marker trees, swimming holes and swinging bridges, The Stroll, fist fights and drunken brawls, Butternick patterns, “the usual afternoon temperate-rain-forest showers,” radio stations you couldn’t pick up until dark, The Ventures, Oldsmobile Rocket 88s, straight razors and thick oiled strops, histrionic hairdos …. This book’s characters and props — as strange as they may seem to outsiders — are believable to anyone who grew up in the rural Southern Appalachian North Carolina hills in the early to mid-1960s.
Written in a new voice which is markedly different from his previous two novels — a combination of a foul-mouthed narrator and god-like all-knowing omniscient observer — this book puts Frazier somewhere in the background completing his own sentences. In Frazier’s night woods, “every day is its own apocalypse.” With “dread filling the pages like floodwater rising,” we follow Luce and her dead sister’s two kids, who rarely speak and prefer bread and butter pickles and ketchup to anything resembling a full and well-balanced meal. To say that these two kids are “picky eaters” would be a gross understatement. Frazier’s tale, here, is a kind of Billy Goats Gruff played out in cornfields turned into Brer Rabbit briar patches, full of “big swellings and recedings upturned and downturned sweeps linked in slow rhythms.”
“Living at the ass-end of nowhere” on the backside of a lake (that could be Fontana Lake over in Graham County) in an abandoned and aging old resort lodge (that could be Snowbird Mountain Lodge), we find the story’s central character, Luce, merely “hanging in there, like a hair in a biscuit” and living out a bit of old mountain wisdom that professes to “keep out of sight from the bullshit of everyday commerce and use money as little as possible.”
What I want mostly, Luce said, is the ability to whistle the song of every bird in the area. Imagine holding every bit of it in your head at one time, this whole place, down to what the salamanders are doing every month of the four seasons.
But her reclusive lifestyle and anti-social philosophies quickly change when she is charged with the care of her young nephew and niece, who have been haunted into a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by their past. As Luce becomes more omnipresent and outgoing, so do the story’s background plots darken — like “a shade of superman black that never grew out of any earthling’s head.”
Like bumblebees take to basil, Frazier is focused on driving this plot-line forward — in an old Ford pickup truck with sideboards — through “weedy pastures in need of cows” and “sad times when heroes pay high money to bootleggers,” all to the foreboding background music of Jimmy Rogers’ “TB Blues.” As the plot builds and the sky literally darkens overhead, and with everyone in the story pursuing each other (yet running in different directions while often lost), and with the “past looming,” Frazier, out of concern for his characters, wonders “when you’re on the wrong road, don’t you turn around and go back?”
But there’s no turning back in this tale and the story weaves its way to the end, where it becomes a kind of backwoods version of Stephen King’s The Shining, where “even Jesus, meek and mild, might give payback a passing thought.” Yet, in the book‘s final pages, Frazier writes a scene of an all-male hunting party on the mountain that is so realistic and so Red Skelton funny in its gallows humor that it offers the reader a timely and much-needed reprieve from the deadly plotline, while creating its own denouement.
Somebody says, I never did confidence your blue tick much. Jones says, Can we keep the local-color shit to a bare minimum?
The talk swirls back around to shared memories and other useless bullshit. Baseball games back shortly after World War I, how somebody dropped a fly ball or hit a home run in the ninth inning. Ridicule and glory. Men who weren’t in those particular games doze off sitting up, then come back to consciousness. Deep in the night, the snow thins down to just a wet flake or two falling into the circle of light and melting away.
In this and in other unrelated instances Nightwoods has some surprising, if lovely, Shakespearean moments “where new love’s bells jangled like in a fire engine.” Lovely in the sense of unexpected moments that are show-stoppers, stopping time in its tracks and calling attention to itself. In a similar way, Frazier entertains us with his skill as a craftsman and with language and lines that might be better served as country songs. Lines like “Might as well be carrying a dead body through the aftermath of a flooded henhouse” and “It’s so nasty most of the time at my place, I wouldn’t even eat a walnut that rolled across the floor.”
The person who gave me the advance copy of Nightwoods I read in order to write this review, said it was a “fast read.” I wondered at the time what he meant by that. Now I know. A “fast read” is a good read. It ends too soon. Nightwoods ended too soon … Snip, snap, snout. This tale’s told out.
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Random House, 2011. 272 pages.