Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Take me home, country roads

Re-reading a book for me is an extremely rare occurrence, done recently for the esteemed Mr. Potter plus the occasional audiobook that needed to be listened to where I had already eye-read the book. But 15 years ago, I read Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and then I re-read it about a year or so later. Cried both times.  I never did get around to his second book, but when I needed a book with a precise time frame for a recent road trip, I went straight to his third, Nightwoods.  And even though I knew the outlines of the story, the whole thing surprised me a little ... and not always in a good way.

It's the 1960s in an isolated community in the North Carolina mountains. Luce, who has lived there all her life, acts as caretaker to a broken-down resort but the owner has recently died. Also recently dead is Luce's sister, Lily, murdered by her husband who was acquitted at his trial through the timely convergence of a shady lawyer and an inexperienced prosecutor. Lily's two young children -- who witnessed the murder -- are now in Luce's loving custody, even though she really doesn't think she'll ever bond with them. Dolores and Frank don't speak, show a somewhat frightening predilection for fire (they may have burned down the resort owner's cabin) and kill a few of Luce's chickens. But Luce -- who was raped as a young woman -- seems determined to show them that at least part of their world can be a safe place. But when Lily's husband, Bud, comes searching for the twins because he thinks they know where a stash of money is, no one in that small Appalachian community is truly safe.

So much of this was a good book: Vivid characters who come alive through dialogue or backstory, a unique setting, palpable suspense on a bunch of different levels, humor, a tender, tentative romance. As my traveling companion said, given Cold Mountain you can't be completely sure that it's all going to end well. And you didn't know until the very end. But it was also really melodramatic, with a whole lot of over-the-top literary descriptions of both behavior and setting that bogged down the story. While listening, I paid close attention to Frazier's lengthy descriptions believing that I would need this knowledge again but more often than not, it was a description for the sake of fancy words. It's a relatively short novel (250 pages), but it could have been a whole lot shorter.  

The actor Will Patton narrates Night-woods. He's just about perfect, with his soft, raspy Southern-tinged speech that moseys along in a rhythmic, good-old-boy (in a good way) pace that beautifully mirrors the setting. Within that quiet and softness though, Patton delivers the novel's tensions with a varied pace and well-placed emphases. He doesn't read fancy -- no dramatic characters, no femmy women, and mercifully no childish children (not much of a challenge since Dolores and Frank are practically mute). But he has an emotional feel for the story that sounds absolutely genuine. He helped me (although not completely) from getting too bogged down in the overloaded prose, sometimes it's best to let someone read for you! I've enjoyed listening to him in the past (most recently here), so maybe I'll seek him out again.

As I was listening, I was thinking about Cold Mountain, which made me think about the movie Cold Mountain and I could not for the life of me remember who played Inman. Ultimately, this didn't matter, because I had no difficulty summoning up Inman from the book. But now that I check imdb, I see what a great group of actors were in that movie (with a few exceptions) ... what went wrong?

["Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area as seen from mile marker 412 on the Blue Ridge Parkway" was taken by Ken Thomas and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier
Narrated by Will Patton
Books on Tape, 2011. 8:46

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