A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
After Cold Mountain, his critically and commercially beloved 1997 debut, Charles Frazier tried to conjure the same historical magic in his follow-up, Thirteen Moons. But, the second time around, written not as a first-time novelist but as a National Book Award winner with an eight million dollar advance, Frazier’s lush, swooning style failed to enchant readers the way it once did. Now, in Nightwoods, his third novel, he leaves the 19th century behind, and compresses his vision into a brutal, gorgeously cinematic 260-page thriller, set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, amidst bootleggers, raccoon hunters, drug-addled police officers, and divinely-inspired, knife-wielding madmen. In the midst of all this, one woman struggles to admit love into her life, and, at the same time, to keep evil from eating her alive.
In every regard, Nightwoods is Frazier’s fiercest and darkest work. The violence is less glamorous and more sickening than in Cold Mountain’s sweeping battle scenes and stylized shootouts, with suffering now far outweighing glory. Nightwoods is so much shorter than Frazier’s previous novels not only because it’s tighter and more intimate, forgoing the epic grandeur that he once dredged so fruitfully from the Civil War, but also because some elemental force, an incarnation of death, perhaps, or simply silence, refuses to let it go on any longer than it does. The pressures not only within but somehow on the novel feel incredibly intense, like something malignant is crushing it down.
The story begins with Luce, a young woman who’s all too happy to earn a modest stipend as caretaker of a disused Lodge on the far edge of a lake outside of town. Living here alone, with only late night radio (“Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville”) and a few elderly neighbors for company, she cultivates a hard resistance to human closeness as carefully as the few hearty vegetables that sustain her.
These years of guarded tranquility, which began after she was casually raped by her high school teacher, come to an abrupt end when her murdered sister’s twin children appear on her doorstep. Mute, sullen, and prone to killing roosters and starting fires, the boy and girl usher a gust of ghostly wind into the Lodge, as if the door, once opened to admit them, can never again be closed. It’s clear, from the moment they arrive, that Luce will have to journey through some version of hell in order to save them, even as she reminds herself that her duty is only to provide shelter, not love. We never know for certain if the children are victims of evil, or agents of it, and the way that Frazier follows through the implications of this dangerous uncertainty is one of his greatest novelistic feats. Much more than helpless orphans, on the one hand, and more than stock horror story demon-children on the other, the twins, taken together as a unit, are a distinctly uncanny presence. They are capable of fighting like snakes, “real cold, like they were not even very angry at each other, just acting under some shared compulsion,” and yet they also share moments of true tenderness and vulnerability, when they cannot disguise how desperate for mothering they are, and Luce begins to waver in her resolve not to love them.
When their father (and their mother’s killer) shows up in town, chasing money that he believes they have, the novel jolts even further from its hushed opening, flaring up into a showdown thriller, more than a little reminiscent of the film The Night of the Hunter. Indeed, the father, Bud, “a handsome man, at least in the retrograde style of the expired southern fifties,” is a campy, gleefully rendered stand-in for Hunter’s Robert Mitchum. Obsessed with “Christ’s wounds and Christ’s blood… the dark artery offering that covered the globe,” Bud perfectly embodies the same union of religious mania and compulsive sadism that made Mitchum’s Gospel-preaching hunter such an indelible bogeyman. The one difference, of course, is that the hunted children here are not the helpless innocents they were in the film: Frazier gets us to fear for the children, but also to fear them, never letting us forget that they are the progeny of the very murderer who has come to hunt them down. This extra variable only compounds the intensity of the hunt.
Despite Nightwoods’ markedly grimmer tone, however, Frazier retains his giant crowd-pleasing appeal, and this works both for and against him. There is an undeniable greatness to his prose and the way he carves terror and romance out of the magisterial Carolina landscape, building toward an intentionally unsubtle climax, and yet some saccharine aftertaste lurks even in the novel’s roughest patches: there is always the suspicion that he’s gone too far out of his way to please, crafting a sort of backwoods-bloodbath-lite for urbanites who know nothing of this world except a few tired clichés, and are game only for a brief guided tour. As such, the prose veers too often into a nostalgic, aphoristic tone, seemingly meant to convey hard-earned country wisdom, like “ …violence is best accomplished spur-of-the-moment. Let it happen out of nowhere… like there’s no past and no future, nothing but the red right now…” These lines are always beautiful, and often ring true, but, over time, they start to seem either demeaning toward the rural reality they come from, or else condescending toward the urban readership they will doubtlessly reach. In short, Nightwoods is not only grippingly cinematic, it’s also unabashedly movie-ready, no less so than Cold Mountain was.
But none of this obscures the pleasure of reading such a scary and handsomely pared-down novel. At the very center of the woods is a “black hole filled with black water,” which “pulled at you. You stand up to it, or you go down.” As the action hurdles along toward its inevitable bloody conclusion, the magnetic attraction of this black hole grows so strong that it overwhelms or simply devours any lingering suspicions of the confectionary hollowness under Frazier’s perfectly dressed scenes. After this, I could do nothing but enjoy the accelerating ride into and finally through the dark. Almost as much, I’m sure, as I’ll enjoy the movie when it comes out.
There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
For me, one of the great feats is to find a book that is so good you can’t put it down. I mean literally – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.A book this good doesn’t come around very often. To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Okay. I swear I’ll stop talking about Jonathan Safran Foer. I have to. I’ve read everything he’s written. And I’m glad I saved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the end. So you’ll have to forgive me this month – I guarantee I’ll stop from now on.My first encounter with a Foer was actually with his brother, Franklin, in How Soccer Explains the World. I ran across Jonathan Foer later on, thanks to the Penguin Pockets 70th anniversary set, and then finally read Everything is Illuminated last month. The Penguin Pockets book – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, was a Vilhauer Book of the Month. Everything is Illuminated would have made it last month, except I chose Other Electricities instead.The reason I chose Other Electricities is because I didn’t want to “over-Foer” my welcome. This month I can’t say the same.Our narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser. Oh, and just to add a little timeliness, his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read.First of all, EL&IC is not a novel about September 11th, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming – in this case, Oskar’s father – has died. You can see it in everyone he meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is nearly directly tied to that fateful day.You can’t expect a young boy to understand fully what happened on September 11th, and Oskar is a great example. He’s a genius, a boy that considers himself a Francophile and gets his news from international news sites. He’s wise beyond his young age, but he’s still a scared boy. He’s picked on at school, and he at times takes on the role of “pretentious little twit,” the smartest guy in the room – a kid that knows too much and isn’t afraid to say it.It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes are dreadful, if you think about them too long, but you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.But most of all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture each character as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 40s that have never been touched.September 11th. The bomb at Hiroshima. The napalm storm of Dresden.A lack of communication. The lost years of childhood. The connections between father and son.How can you spell out the feelings invoked in EL&IC? Because that’s exactly what this book does. It invokes feelings. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?What if?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.