Indian bummer

In his highly anticipated follow-up to "Cold Mountain," Charles Frazier explores 19th century America's brutal program to expel Indians. As a richly imagined historical novel, it draws out the best and worst of literary fiction.

Published October 5, 2006 12:31PM (EDT)

In publishing circles, the runaway success of Charles Frazier's 1997 novel "Cold Mountain" is often declared to be puzzling; the book is so resolutely old-fashioned, so unsexy, so solemn. The answer lies in the novel's unusual appeal to both sides of the ever-dwindling readership for literary fiction. There's war and travel for the men (you can get some men to read about the Civil War who will ordinarily read about nothing else) and an epic love story for the women. The novel's ostensible ancestor is the Odyssey; it depicts a Civil War deserter's journey home to the woman he left behind in Carolina hill country. But the less exalted secret ingredient is a healthy dash of "Little House on the Prairie." Echoes of the Laura Ingalls Wilder children's classic can be found in Frazier's loving descriptions of how Ada, the woman waiting back home, learns to run a cabin, raise and dry tobacco and turn a crop of apples into the valuable commodity of hard cider.

Frazier's second novel, "Thirteen Moons," is both more accessible than "Cold Mountain" and somewhat less likely to catch on. "Cold Mountain" was stonily committed to its 19th century setting. You either submitted to the stately pace and rural preoccupations of that earlier time or you were repelled by the surface of the novel's prose and became one of those people who pled mystification at its popularity. Those of us who could adjust to Frazier's style, though, found ourselves genuinely transported -- something historical fiction can rarely achieve -- into the mental rhythms of a far less jittery and overstimulated way of life.

"Thirteen Moons" is also set in the Smoky Mountains, but it's really a western masquerading as a faux memoir. The voice -- first-person narration from one Will Cooper, an orphan adopted by the chief of a dwindling Cherokee village who goes on to become a lawyer, a state senator, a colonel in the Civil War, and most important, the defender of the Indians' last shred of their old life -- is pure frontier raconteur. Cooper is roughly based on William Holland Thomas, a famous Carolina figure who led a company of Cherokee fighters in the Confederate Army.

Despite the widely held notion that irony is an affectation uniquely beloved by postmodern smartypants, you can find plenty of 19th century American writers who relished the device, especially when describing life on the nation's ragged Western edge. They got a kick out of applying the decorous language of the Victorian establishment to the brutal reality around them. Frazier adopts their tone when he has Cooper observe, while lingering by the Mississippi, that "little brown frogs lived in the mud of the riverbank, and pink-headed buzzards fell in drunkard angles from the sky and stepped through the mud to eat them, and sometimes the commerce between the two parties went on right at the legs of my table."

Although Cooper is no less a man of his time than Inman, the hero of "Cold Mountain," the Twainian humor he uses in telling his story is an element of the American style that's stuck with us. Autobiography, which is what "Thirteen Moons" pretends to be, is the signature narrative form of the moment. As a result, Cooper's voice feels more familiar and congenial than the third-person narration of "Cold Mountain," and contemporary readers should slip into Frazier's second novel more easily. I wouldn't necessarily call this a concession to the marketplace, since you could hardly expect a fellow like Cooper to recount his life in the somber, mythic mode of "Cold Mountain," but "Thirteen Moons" still lacks the fierce, uncompromising quality that made "Cold Mountain" so striking.

"Cold Mountain" had the air of a book written by a man holed up in a house in the woods, aiming to please no one but himself; "Thirteen Moons" is a novel with a relationship, albeit an uneasy one, to the world. This is most evident in a passage where Cooper -- a great reader, like Ada in "Cold Mountain" -- scoffs at an essay in a journal decrying the "state of recent fiction. Its judgment was harsh, on the grounds that we live in a happy, beautiful, virile age. And yet our stories are unnecessarily glum. We do not want sighs or tears. We are all seeking happiness, whether through money or position. It is our privilege to resent any attempts to force unhappy thoughts on us."

Whether or not Appleton's Journal of Literature, Science and the Arts ever ran such a piece (I'm not convinced that the term "recent fiction" was common currency in the mid-1800s), this is a flagrant dig at the philistines who objected to the gloomy ending of "Cold Mountain." Frazier borrows the credibility of his likable, no-nonsense narrator to take a pot shot at his own critics, a self-serving anachronism the author of "Cold Mountain" would never have stooped to. Cooper's reply to the critic's complaint is to wordlessly take a couple of swigs from his flask; it's too stupid to merit any further response.

Aside from the occasional lapse, Cooper is good company. His adventures in the uncharted Indian Nation, where his relatives sell him into indentured servitude working as a clerk at an isolated trading post, and his later exploits in Washington and traveling along the Mississippi make for amusing reading. From his adoptive father, Bear, he learns what's left of the Cherokee ways, and this comes with ample dollops of classic village humor, mostly about the humiliating situations men get into on account of sex. The structure of "Thirteen Moons" is necessarily episodic -- that's how life happens, as Cooper explains at one point -- with a few recurring themes.

First among these themes is the passing away of the Indians' world. Some of the best scenes in the novel take place during the "removal" of 1838, President Andrew Jackson's brutal program designed to expel all Native Americans from lands east of the Mississippi River. Bear and the small community he presides over manage to elude the infamous Trail of Tears thanks to a considerable amount of wheeling, dealing and deed accumulation on the part of Cooper. The fate of a less fortunate Cherokee, an aged patriarch known as Charley, as he tries to hide his clan in the mountains, serves as the novel's grim centerpiece.

The other, less effective motif in Cooper's story is his thwarted, lifelong love for Claire, a girl he wins in a poker game from a part-Indian horse thief and plantation owner named Featherstone, and then loses again when Featherstone reneges on the deal. Later on, the two young lovers conduct a largely al fresco affair featuring enough good wine, sunburned buttocks and discussions of Byron's poetry to suggest that Frazier wants to wrassle novelist Jim Harrison for the title of official Lusty Yet Cultured Old Coot of American literature. Cooper and Claire are kept apart for reasons not always entirely clear, so he gets to go on and on about how he's never forgotten her, keeps an old coat in the attic that might still harbor a little of her scent, and much, much later receives mysterious staticky calls on the newfangled telephone in which he thinks he hears, faintly, her voice.

This relationship is pretty notional and not in the least bit interesting or believable. I suspect it was tossed into the mix to make Cooper seem sweeter and more romantic. (William Holland Thomas, the historical figure on whom Cooper was based, had a wife and children, a far more intriguing scenario.) Cooper goes on to do his share of whoring and courting, coming close to marrying once or twice, but he insists that "had Claire been fully mine since I won her as a boy, I would have lived a life of utter fidelity." A nice sentiment, and one conveniently untested by the events of Cooper's life as Frazier constructs them. But why be so scrupulous about sticking to the rambling, unnovelistic structure of real experience and then turn your hero's love life into the stuff of a Hollywood movie?

The love story in many novels -- especially historical novels -- is a lot like the explosions in the better action movies. It may not be what you came to see, but a certain portion of the audience requires it to feel satisfied, and it's easy enough to sit through while you wait for the better parts. In Frazier's case, the best parts are the ones that hark back to Laura Ingalls Wilder, describing the stock of the frontier trading post and the intricacies of commerce in a place where currency is rare, the matrimonial and wintering practices of the Cherokee, the fact that a single deer's brain contains exactly enough of the right ingredients to cure a single deer's hide, the details of the spells conducted by the local medicine woman and the operation of the Wayah community under Cooper's leadership.

The Indians and local woodsmen are mostly trading in hides and ginseng at the time Cooper arrives at the post. A man who arrives to ship the takings east tells the boy "the ginseng went all the way around the world in sailing ships and was sold to Chinamen, who ate it and believed it made their jimson stand up straighter. So I was just the second man in a long chain of people working to make that Chinaman stiff." There's more romance in that notion than in all of Cooper's dreams of Claire, and I would rather read 10 pages of Frazier's descriptions of trailside cookery (detailed enough that you could re-create the meals, and vivid enough that you want to) than any of the passages in which the two lovers cavort through streams and fields.

Frazier has an instinctive understanding of small-scale capitalism as just an intensified form of domesticity, and his depictions of both are usually the most absorbing aspects of his books. There are bear fights and wilderness ordeals aplenty in "Thirteen Moons," too, but these, after all, are the sort of stories we've heard a hundred times, whereas I've never encountered a recipe for yellow-jacket soup before. Likewise, it's the tobacco curing and the cider brewing that I remember best from "Cold Mountain," not the obligatory battle scenes.

If only Frazier hadn't adopted so many of the dreary mannerisms of today's literary fiction since writing "Cold Mountain." Exhibit A is the book's pervasive and ill-fitting tone of elegiac melancholy, beginning with an introductory scene in which the elderly Cooper takes up a pen to record his life, ponder his decrepitude and grouse about such modern intrusions as electricity, movies and the phone. Railroads, he grumbles, "are ruinous noisy machines that hold no reference to anything in the green world or to the past in general." I can't see much reason for this framing device, except that it explains how the story is being told (a consideration that never troubles, say, "David Copperfield") and it effectively stifles the possibility that a reader might take some vulgar pleasure in wondering how it all turns out. (Memo to young novelists: If the phrase "As I look down the misty corridor of time..." could be applied in any way at all to the opening pages of your book, cut them.)

At the heart of this is the implication -- telegraphed in that passage concerning idiots who complain that "recent fiction" is "unnecessarily glum" -- that art should not be too energetic or entertaining. By this logic, literature is in fact necessarily glum. The suggestion that it might be otherwise rates only a snort and another pull of whiskey, because, as all truly literate people know, great writing is an earnest business entailing the contemplation of the eternal verities of existence -- all of which boil down to the fact that life is very, very sad.

Frazier is far from alone among contemporary literary novelists in believing that the only appropriate theme for serious fiction is the pitifulness of the human condition, the inevitability of loss and decline, the inability of people to get what they want, the torments of memory and so on. You can find the same attitude in writers as different from him as Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace. Granted, this is an understandable response to the relentless demand in pop culture for positive lessons, happy endings and uplift. But, being a reflex, it usually winds up feeling as trite as the stimulus.

Placing his narrator at death's door allows Frazier to favor us with such reflections as the following: "My future is behind me"; "We all go about burdened with the reality that we are the broken-off ends of true people. It is the severe vengeance Creation takes on us for living"; "When all you know is lost and gone forever, does it become sweeter in the mind?"; "You find yourself exiled in a transformed world, peopled by strangers." This is meant to be deep, the seasoned thought of a man who's lived long enough to know better than to consider himself wise. But it's really just a higher class of clichi (easily recognizable as such by anyone who doesn't subsist on a literary diet of Oprah picks) and in such large servings, it's tiresome. Some fine novels have been written about old age. (One recent example is "A Slight Trick of the Mind," by Mitch Cullin.) They succeed by treating it as a subject of infinite complexity, rather than just the occasion to slap a patina of gravity on a story in danger of being taken too lightly.

There is, of course, a real tragedy at the core of "Thirteen Moons," which is the erasure of the Cherokee by the European-Americans. But it must be said that every aspect of this tale, from the depredations of smallpox, to the tribes' fables about the once-noble animal spirits who have fled their land, to the Indian villages plowed under by corn farmers, to the glimpses of vanishing traditions and reminiscences of the days "before the arrival of the Spaniards and their metal hats," feels very familiar. It's not clear that it urgently needs to be told again, at least not in this particular incarnation.

"Thirteen Moons" arrives in the year after Civil War novels won the Pulitzer Prize ("March" by Geraldine Brooks) and the National Book Critics Circle award ("The March" by E.L. Doctorow), and a World War II novel ("Europe Central" by William Vollmann) took the National Book Award. Some critics have ventured to call historical fiction the defining literary mode of our day. Perhaps they're right, and if so, alas. It's as if literary fiction can only carry us backward, to a world whose conditions and moral dilemmas can, with the advantage of hindsight, be tidily comprehended and easily weighed. In "Thirteen Moons," Frazier is double-shielded from the present. His hero recoils from innovations, like railroads, that, in our day, have already become the stuff of nostalgia. The ones we can't imagine living without, like electricity and telephones, are cast as the first encroachments against the book-centered culture in which Cooper is steeped. It's as if literature itself were, like the Cherokees, being inexorably pushed out of its rightful kingdom.

Frazier and many others surely believe just that, and not without cause. No wonder a book like "Thirteen Moons," for all its humor, feels so mournful. In their view, the novel, like Cooper, is on its last legs and so prefers the candlelight that falls more kindly on its wrinkled face. Better to retreat to its room and reminisce than to grapple with the new world being made by telephones and movies -- let alone cable TV and the Internet. Not every reader agrees. There are those who think that all this despair and -- yes  unnecessary glumness is a bit premature, who still believe that the novel has plenty to say about life in this jangled, vital, frantically mutating and always exciting world before it lies down and dies. We're the ones way out in Indian Country.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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