Frazier writes gritty mystery

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 18, 2011

“Nightwoods,” by Charles Frazier. 2011.Random House. 272 pp. $26 hardcover.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Charles Frazier’s “Nightwoods” features the rich descriptions and deep characters of all his books, but the gritty tone and dark atmosphere set this book apart.
The author of “Cold Mountain” and “Thirteen Moons” is a stylist, as well as a stirring storyteller, and this mystery story is taut and compelling.
There’s a seriously fractured family, all with L names. Luce is the damaged, surviving daughter, Lily is the one who was murdered, Lola is the mother who ran away from responsibility, and Lit the drug-driven uncaring father.
The book begins when Luce inherits her sister’s twins, Delores and Frank, who are dumped on her doorstep by the state. It’s pretty obvious something unspeakable has happened to them when the state man tells Luce, “One doctor thought they might be feebleminded. Another one said it’s just they saw what they saw, and they’ve been yanked out of their lives and put in the Methodist Home for the time it took to sort things out.”
Whatever it is, they don’t speak, and their stares are unnerving. For fun, they set fires.
Lily’s boyfriend is acquitted of the murder, but he has some unfinished business. He thinks the children have his money, and they are witnesses. Best to take care of that, he reasons, however sick those reasons are.
Bud is a chameleon — a shapeshifter if you will — who decides a good way to bide his time while he hunts down Lily’s family is to take over the local bootlegger’s business. Then he meets Lit and feeds his voracious appetite for uppers. Lit, the sheriff’s deputy, and Bud, the killer moonshine man, become best friends.
Meanwhile, Luce, who has escaped as best she can from the people in her hometown, struggles to learn how to treat the children.
Luce’s attitude, after her own degrading experience, is to just get along as best she can. Rules don’t always apply, especially with these children. She just keeps going on, adapting her behavior as necessary. Love hurts, she knows that much, so she doesn’t force it on the children.
Then along comes Stubblefield, heir to the falling-down, mostly empty lodge where Luce is caretaker — unpaid except for a small stipend.
Stubblefield, a man without much direction, finds some when he meets Luce, and flashed back to their high school days.
Quietly, he becomes a glowing point of hope in the darkening shadows of Luce’s world.
Bud is the darkness spreading towards her. He isn’t exactly malevolent. He looks at death as a necessity. Necessary so he can have what he wants.
As the story continues, Frazier develops Bud into a deeply disturbed character — yet one who is completely confident and untroubled about his path.
Bud likes blood. His own, others. He’s fascinated by it, drawn to it like a moth to flame. As his plan gets more complicated and suffers more setbacks, his paranoia grows and is only soothed by blood.
“Bud clutched his shark-tooth necklace in his fist. Then he cut a deep diagonal slice across the pad of his middle finger with the serrations millions of years old. When the blood domes out, he put his finger in his mouth to taste the iron.”
The suspense becomes itchily unbearable when Bud sets out to take care of the children, once and for all. A slow pursuit up the dark and consuming mountain pits good against evil. The good children, reveling in the nature that surrounds them, self-sufficient in a way only they know, their journey is something of a triumph.
Bud’s journey, continually fighting the elements, the living creatures, the dark, is the personification of evil — but evil on a path of self-destruction.
Readers may find themselves holding their breaths for a long time as the book reaches its crescendo.
Frazier, to his credit, does not write a sunshine and butterflies ending. But there’s a glow at the horizon, and the fire is comforting, instead of destructive. Normal is something completely different for Luce, but now it includes more possibilities than ever before.