The American ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote that to possess an awareness of the environment is to understand that we live in a world of wounds, but it is just as true that a novelist as astute and compassionate as Charles Frazier knows this same truth, not just up at the surface, in the natural processes of rot and rebirth, but within the vertical component of damage in the human psyche. At times the depth of this knowledge appears to be so profound as to pass through pain or judgment, and exists as pure observation, sharp and specific.
In Frazier’s previous works there is sometimes a fierce sense of justice, but in “Nightwoods’’ there is a newer, slighter distance, a fascinating unwillingness to judge. What might seem like a fairly basic suspense novel - a father abuses his children in unspoken horrible fashion, murders his wife, is acquitted; the children go to live with the dead woman’s sister, and then the killer stalks them all - is in fact a virtuoso construction, with layer upon layer of wounds, not one of which has completely healed. Indeed, as these characters move through the landscape of rural North Carolina, their intersections seem to tear loose scabs and scar tissue, which makes for interesting relationships.
Nearly every kind of hurt is represented. The horribly twisted and tragically ignorant Bud, haunted by an inner violence more keenly felt for its dull steady presence than were it sharply whetted. At times he shoulders it like a heavy burden, seems almost puzzled that it is his. He too has a loneliness. And when his psychopathic spells descend, they are as bewildering to him as to his victims.
The hero, or anti-hero, Stubblefield, carries his own loneliness, almost pathetically so -at times he is desperate to avoid solitude - and grasps at Luce, the heroine, or anti-heroine, with a lightly informed intensity that is touching in its fervor.
Luce lives a life of extreme and splendid isolation in a crumbling old mansion, a life in which she has but three major dependencies or pleasures or, in the novel’s voice, “reimbursements’’ of life: reading, listening to late-night radio, and observing the weather and the changing of the seasons, both subtle and grand. Such purity of existence cannot be maintained, of course - it goes against the nature of the world and of humans’ place in it - and her new guardianship of her niece and nephew, as well as the attentions of Stubblefield, intrude on this carefully wrought and carefully guarded life of avoidance. She has her own wounds and reasons.
There’s no profit in comparing wounds, but it seems that it is the children, Frank and Dolores, who are most marred, or who carry their damage least well. Largely mute except with each other, killers of chickens and arsonists of the first degree, they tolerate Luce and, subsequently, gradually, Stubblefield - recognizing in him, perhaps, a similar gaping absence. They are however still children, able to be lulled back to a sense of peace if not innocence by something as timeless and simple as a ride on an old pony.
And these are the survivors. Various other less fortunate parties, beginning with the children’s mother, Lily, become victims to Bud’s violence, which continues to inhabit him with a logic that is all the more sinister for its randomness. It’s not something that he’s going to grow out of or beyond, though Frazier does a masterful job of letting us think for a while that he might.
Central to the characters’ movements - the predator chasing his prey, only to then become the quarry, then predator again, and finally prey - is a great mysterious abyss in the deep woods, a cavern that chills Luce to her core when she discovers it. She understands immediately that it is no simple metaphor, but a mirror or shadow - a reservoir - for the human stain, and a thing to keep the children away from at all costs.
“If you dipped a ladle in that water and drank it, visions would come so dark you wouldn’t want to live in the world that contained them. You’d be ready to flee toward the other darkness summed up in death, which is only distant kin to the black hole and the liquid it cups. A darkness left over from before Creation. A reminder of a time before light.’’
A story composed exclusively of wounds would be ponderous and ultimately probably not so interesting. But the novel finds humor of every variety, with wickedly wry dialogue reminiscent of the best of Charles Portis, Larry Brown, and Cormac McCarthy, and there is even an elaborate small set-up of near slapstick, involving Stubblefield and the sheriff and the silhouette of a woman in a window.
Sometimes even simple phrases possess a lightness of humor that threads its way between the right and blood that pounds and pulses elsewhere in the novel. When Luce spooks the children by speaking harshly to them about some small matter, causing them to cow and skitter, she feels bad about it, and retires to the kitchen to make “a guilty peach pie.’’ The children’s facility at fire making is described in this passage: “Tiny cavemen on Benzedrine couldn’t have made fire faster.’’
There are no traditional heroes or heroines here. The only real heroism is that of persistence, the stubbornness of showing up each day, particularly in the face of fear - not so much physical fear, but more often, internal, emotional fears - and moving forward through the fabric of the extreme clumsiness, fear, and longing that is the human condition.
Blood is spilled often in “Nightwoods’’ - sometimes just a little, other times quite a lot - and it soaks into the rich soil, cycling again and again, while each generation of newcomers to the pageant rise and rise again, a ceaseless crop of humanity, sometimes possessing a puzzling and admirable integrity of spirit, and other times, its equally-puzzling absence.
Rick Bass lives in Montana and is the author of 26 books, most recently the novel “Nashville Chrome.’’ This spring, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish “The Black Rhinos of Namibia,’’ a work of nonfiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.