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Charles Frazier
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-400-06709-1
Publication Date: 09-27-2011
260 Pages; $26
Date Reviewed: 11-20-2011

Index:  General Fiction  Mystery

History is in the eye — and age — of the beholder. For some readers, a novel set in the 1960's is historical, a tale from a time before they set their feet upon this earth. For others, it's simply a novel of the past.

For Charles Frazier, 'Nightwoods', a taut, sparse tale of terror set in Appalachia in the early 1960's, is timeless. Part noir, part Southern Gothic, 'Nightwoods' operates in Flannery O'Connor country. Good women try to stay out of the way; good men try to find their way; and bad men have their way. All of them swirl around the edges of modernity, bringing mostly the worst parts with them, before they are sucked into a vortex of inevitable violence. From the moment we start such a story, narrative tension pulls us forward with a feeling of pleasurable dread.

Frazier sure gets the beginning right, with a knockout first page that is likely to have readers bringing the book home, no matter what your feelings are about history, the 60's or the rural parts of Appalachia. It's a classic southern Gothic setup; Luce is the caretaker for a disused lodge right out of a Stephen King novel, who has had her murdered sister's kids dropped off at her door. It's not a good situation to start with, and chances are things will get worse before they get better.

Frazier's prose doesn't waste any time establishing a unique voice and mood. There's a very laconic feel to the writing that makes reading the book quite appealing. It might at first seem simplistic, because it is very easy to read. But Frazier manages some very complicated effects, writing a breathlessly paced tale of toe-tapping terror that often reads like backwoods poetry. The combination of understatement and elegance in the service of violence and nature means that you'll slow down enough to really enjoy the writing, even as the plot commands your attention. 'Nightwoods' is a book that you will read quickly — but not too quickly. You'll want to enjoy the language as much as find out what is going to happen.

With 'Nightwoods,' Frazier is working on a small canvas with a small cast. The decision to limit number of characters and the geographical range is smart. We get to know everyone here quite well, and there's a good deal of pleasure just seeing how the relationships unfold. The upshot is that the characters seem very realistic and engaging, and interactions complex. Moreover, their relationships are clearly going in a variety of directions; some seem headed for connection, others for violence. Frazier effectively uses his sense of characterization to drive the plot.

Frazier's plot is pretty straightforward, but the twists of character keep it vivid, vital, intense and off-kilter. The finishing set-piece is appropriately harrowing and poetic. There's a good deal of menace on parade, but it's leavened with unsentimental goofiness and low-key honesty that makes readers look forward to seeing any combination of characters come together. Some, we know, will be more volatile than others, and therein lies the pleasure. It's the joy of a murder ballad, a wailing song of love and woe. 'Nightwoods' is set at the edge of civilization in every sense of the word, where each moment evokes an eon and each emotion, an excess. The precise point where the past becomes history is a moving target, annihilated anew with every breath we take.

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