Miraculous moments fill compelling 'Nightwoods'

Charles Frazier's 1996 debut novel "Cold Mountain" astonished many readers - not least for stealing the spotlight from Don DeLillo's unmistakably major novel "Underworld," and then winning the year's National Book Award for Fiction.

How good was the North Carolina author's canny reinvention of Homer's "Odyssey" as a Civil War story? Good enough that the film version of "Cold Mountain" hardly needed even the graceful reshapings accomplished by its superb writer-director, the late Anthony Minghella. Book and movie alike continue to offer substantial rewards crafted by a well-met assemblage of highly talented people.

Frazier followed it with "Thirteen Moons," a tangled unraveling of ancestral sin and guilt that shows rather too much allegiance to the legacy of William Faulkner at his most egregiously over-rhetorical. And now we have "Nightwoods" - part roman noir, part overcorrection of an earlier overcorrection - and, I regret to say, a tale of good vs. evil that sinks its teeth into the reader expertly, and ends in a cloud of unrealized possibilities whose most recognizable forms are its undeveloped plot twists and turns.

Making good use of his talent for creating vivid figures and drawing us into guessing who they are and what they're really up to, Frazier introduces a young woman named Luce, who is "squatting" in an abandoned lodge some distance from a lake town somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. Its elderly owner (Stubblefield) had taken a liking to Luce, who's resolutely independent, after losing her sexually promiscuous runaway mother (Lola), her father (who became a casualty of his own military career), and her sister (Lily) to a charismatic psychopath (Bud). Bud may have married Lily. We're told plainly that he killed her (though a jury acquitted him), and is of the opinion that his surviving stepchildren have something Bud wants.

When those children - a twin boy and girl (Frank and Dolores), who barely speak and admire the spectacles fires create - are dumped on the lodge's doorstep, Luce phlegmatically accepts them and begins to mother them. And then, in a manner much too reminiscent of David Grubb's ineffably creepy minor classic "The Night of the Hunter," Bud begins to zero in on his targets.

What makes "Nightwoods" compelling reading is Frazier's subtle, sinuous prose, sometimes expressed in icy-apt descriptive phrases. (Luce wryly realizes that she lives "free-range"; a hooked rainbow trout's "brilliant agonizing in the sunlight"; the sound of a hawk's "wings cutting the air, a faint rattle of feathers.")

The novel is filled with miraculous little moments of discovery, and it's often exhilarating, watching Frazier's narrator - well, simply watch, and breathe in the sensual, sinister plenitude of a world that seems older and more alive than our own everyday one, topping its own possibilities.

And that's why this vivid, potentially rich novel seems to go so far wrong as its end approaches. All the chess pieces have been set in motion, and characters are locked in, either pursuing or fleeing their quarry or the danger that stalks them. Frazier takes care not to give away too much about what his pared-to-the-bone, elemental characters have tethered themselves to. The strange little lawman known as Deputy Lit is vitally related to the central mystery - but it's a good long time before we learn exactly how. Those "feral" children may have been so battered and traumatized they'll even turn on those who love them, but Luce has her reasons for sensing this may not be so.

There's a superb ironic moment in which Bud's murderous progress toward his goal is enabled when he experiences an epiphany that puts him in a state of something very like grace, very like the world where Luce dwells every day, now speaking her hard-won wisdom to a soul mate worthy of hearing it. Bud's epiphany is over in a whiplash of a moment, so we can't be sure. But if we could, it might be a gesture toward something we all know as well as we know the old story of Adam and Eve. Not the very same story, mind you, but close enough to it to calm your nerves while it's chilling you to the bone.