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.”Read the full article