The third novel by cataloguer of Appalachian woe Charles Frazier, Nightwoods is slower-moving than it has any right to be, considering that it includes a Cormac McCarthy-esque single-minded killer; a pair of mute, horror-flick children; and more of the brutal, homespun prose that made Cold Mountain a quick read in spite of the page count. After that book’s surprising success, the even-more-surprising $8 million advance for Thirteen Moons, and Frazier’s maybe-less-surprising failure to meet those enormous expectations, Nightwoods takes a step back to what worked in Cold Mountain, combining Inman’s blood-soaked wanderings with Ada’s domestic drive to create an examination of households under construction and under siege.
The setting is still the Appalachian mountains, but the decade has shifted to the 1960s. Luce and Lily were blessed with disinterested parents as ill-prepared for raising children as John Updike’s Harry and Janice Angstrom. After an encounter with the darker side of small-town life, Luce swears off her lawman father, Lit, and takes a job as caretaker for a secluded summer lodge where she lives alone, until a social worker drops off Luce’s sister’s children. Lily’s bad-ol’-boy husband Buddy killed her; worse still, her kids saw the whole thing. Now they’re terrified of people, mesmerized by fire, and a danger to animals everywhere. Luce’s status quo is further threatened by the death of the lodge’s owner, whose beatnik grandson, Stubblefield, arrives to survey his new holdings. Like Cold Mountain’s Inman, he goes by his surname and has been carrying a torch for a brainy girl who never seemed to know her own attraction. Like Ada, Luce sees verbal sparring as a way to weed out unsuitable suitors. Together, they begin an uneasy courtship before Bud comes a-calling for a pile of money he suspects the children of having.
Buddy’s hell-raising with Lit has a disturbing Denis Johnson amorality, and though his apocalyptic visions are sometimes more hokey than horrifying, he’s an intriguing villain, as much consumed with self-doubt as thoughts of revenge. The other characters have less to recommend them, and some, like Luce’s mother, are too briefly sketched to warrant sympathy or interest. And Stubblefield and Luce’s romance—which apparently rests on a bedrock of music references and a sliver of shared history—is unconvincing and off-putting.
Unlike Cold Mountain, Nightwoods doesn’t call for a dictionary every three pages, but the language is still full of pungent Southernisms, and Frazier is still an undeniably good sermonizer. Buddy’s dark musings on hot-blooded murder as it relates to deferred gratification are persuasive arguments for Frazier as a stylist above all else. It’s just a shame that readers have to take his message on patience to heart in order to enjoy Nightwoods’ most chilling scenes.