Charles Frazier's third is 'one of the year's most entertaining American novels'

Book review: 'Nightwoods,' by Charles Frazier. Random House, $26.

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Davis Grubb is surely Moundsville, W.Va.'s greatest novelist, just for writing 1953's "The Night of the Hunter."

James Agee and Charles Laughton wrote and directed, respectively, the 1955 film version of the book, a fine movie that has spared Grubb's novel from going out of print.

Charles Frazier's new novel, "Nightwoods," draws obvious comparisons with Grubb's creation. The plots are similar as are the psychopathic villains who relentlessly hunt two innocent children.

Despite the similarities, "Nightwoods" is one of the year's most entertaining American novels, written in the easy, often lyrical style that marked Mr. Frazier's first book, "Cold Mountain," in 1997. It was a sensational debut and rode the best-seller lists into a major Hollywood film.

"Cold Mountain" also had its literary connection, considerably older and more of a classic than Grubb's -- "The Odyssey" -- so again, Mr. Frazier seems to be following a pattern.

Finally, Mr. Frazier sticks to his favorite territory, the mountains of his native North Carolina, although no specific place is mentioned, but the verdant wildness is omnipresent once again.

It's an isolated woodsy setting in the early 1960s where Luce, a young single woman with a troubled past, lives as caretaker in the "Lodge," an abandoned upscale retreat.

Her loneliness is suddenly disturbed when the state dumps her sister's "small and beautiful and violent" twins, a boy and girl, on her after Lily's been stabbed to death by her second husband.

The two are deeply disturbed after witnessing their mother's death and have retreated into themselves, silent and unresponsive to Luce's best efforts to reach them.

Bud Johnson is their mother's sweet-talking, stone-cold killer, who somehow eludes a guilty verdict and sets out in search of the children. He believes they are hiding a pile of money he stole from another of his victims. His plan is to grab the cash and kill the kids.

There's always an unlikely hero in these tales of danger and here it's Stubblefield, grandson of the Lodge's late owner, who's inherited the family holdings.

He quickly forms an attachment to Luce and her two little monsters. She begins to thaw under his earnest attentions as do the children under her kind care.

The course of the novel quickly takes shape, and the action predictably moves deep into the wilderness as the children flee Bud, who has tracked them to the Lodge, then manically pursues them in the mountains.

Mr. Frazier has always been at home in his mountaintops and mist-shrouded valleys. His descriptions of this land verge on a painter's vision wedded to a naturist's knowledge of the flora and fauna.

At times too "beautiful," his prose is tempered by a tough, cynical take on humankind in all its frailties. For instance, the complex character of deputy sheriff Lit is an unsentimental portrait of a man messed up by his World War II experiences.

Addicted to speed, Lit is easily exploited by Bud in his schemes. Even more disturbing is that Lit is Luce's father, who refused to do a thing after she was raped because "this sort of charge is hard to make stick."

Her response: "You go straight to hell."

True, "Nightwoods" is full of echoes from "The Night of the Hunter" and there might have been thoughts on the author's part that he might lure a Hollywood producer to come knocking again.

Cynicism aside, Mr. Frazier's third novel entertains readers through his knowledge of mountain lore and his fully drawn main characters, heroes and villain alike.


Bob Hoover: bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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