The tale of a native son
Charles Frazier's latest novel is a firsthand account of the dying days of the frontier wildness in the North Carolina mountains.
After reading Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, there is only one question left to answer: Will Hollywood tap age-appropriate stars Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood as protagonist Will Cooper or will it instead let Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrestle for the rights?
If a bonus question is permitted, what are the chances Renée Zellweger might be induced to take on the role of Claire, Cooper's haughty love interest?
Before we get to the inevitable movie two or three years hence, it should be noted that Mr. Frazier has written an uneven historical novel a decade after debuting with the bestseller "Cold Mountain." His ascent in 1997 came out of nowhere, propelled by word-of-mouth, rave reviews, and all-star applause from John Berendt and Willie Morris.
Things have changed: Frazier's new novel is known as much for the $8 million advance it fetched as for its subject matter.
Much like his previous book, "Thirteen Moons" alternates between terrifying random violence, rapaciousness, unrequited love, and a relentless fixation on the natural world that proves to be alternately cloying and wondrous.
When Frazier hits the right note, he dazzles, as in this passage early in the novel. "Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still harmless."
Cooper, inspired by William Holland Thomas, offers a firsthand account spanning the dying days of frontier wildness through the Civil War and on to the arrival of telephones and automobiles. Think of him as a less-beloved male sibling to Allan Gurganus's bawdy Confederate widow, recast as Oldest Living Cherokee Tells All.
As with "Cold Mountain," much of the novel takes place in, and describes in minute detail, the mountains of western North Carolina.
To be sure, Cooper's résumé is intriguing: a white boy sold into service at age 12 at an Indian trading post by an aunt and uncle, forced to wander through the wilderness, and eventually adopted by a Cherokee tribesman.
Later on, Cooper dabbles in jobs ranging from self-made legal eagle to state senator, with ample time devoted to lobbying in Washington on behalf of the Cherokees. He also boasts an impressive business career built on an expanding chain of trade and general stores and dabbles in lucrative land speculation.
Frazier's narrator is gifted when roaming the mountains and dense forests of the Appalachians. He proves equally adept with cultural endeavors, rummaging through favored Latin verses, quoting Byron and, in Lincolnesque fashion, spending cold winter nights exhausting the works of Cervantes, Homer, Virgil, and other literary eminences.
Armed with this Renaissance man, Frazier pulls the reader in with the story of Cooper's early days as an orphan and the day-to-day fright of living in an alien (and soon-to-be doomed) culture. As the narrator reflects on his early days among the Cherokees and the daunting geography, he notes, "Seven layers of mountains faded off in diminishing orders of blue to the west. I stood and looked at the place and imagined it all pitch black, and I was afraid."
Though Cooper, like his real-life counterpart, gains control of some lands and is able to keep a small clutch of Cherokees from being removed in the "Trail of Tears" march westward, the drama fails to resonate in Frazier's depiction. He has the obligatory historical novel cameos down pat: Here is a glimpse of the nefarious Andrew Jackson, the backer of the infamous Indian Removal Act, there are the disunited resistance leaders John Ross and Major Ridge, and so on.
Cooper's political, business, and outdoor exploits appear in intermittent bursts, sandwiched around windy reflections on the land that begin as lyrical homage and devolve into tedium and parody.
At one point, an imminent duel between Cooper and a man whose father was captured because of Cooper's betrayal is defused by a back-slapping whiskey session in which "we contested to name all the colors the mountains and their foliage are able to take on." That's right. We have a showdown between hardy frontiersmen and neither one is going to fire his weapon. Instead – buckle up – they're going to discuss the gradations of, yes, fall foliage.
Cooper's love of leaves makes more sense than his love of Claire, a cold, baffling character whose motivation seems forever suspect. She exists to disappear for lengthy stretches before reappearing, engaging in sulky sex, and vanishing again.
True, plenty of people fall in love with those who hurt them, but Claire winds up being vapid and irritating rather than the alluring and mysterious combination Frazier seeks. (Depending upon point of view, this last trait may, or may not, increase the chances of luring "Cold Mountain" alumna Nicole Kidman back for another turn in a Frazier-penned role.) Cooper himself grows tiresome with his suspicion of all things modern, grousing about telephones and light bulbs in failed asides aimed at raffish curmudgeonly charm.
"Thirteen Moons" and its narrator lose much of their momentum in the second half of the book. Frazier possesses prodigious talent, but his plot feels too loose and unfocused.
If Cooper grates and the love story becomes ridiculous, Frazier can take ample consolation in the coming harvest moon, sure to be filled by bountiful bestseller lists and a multimillion-dollar movie option.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.