The disgracefulness of Charles Frazier.
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Thirteen Moons is Charles Frazier's follow-up to Cold Mountain, the best seller that vaulted Frazier from English professor to frontlist superstar. Like its predecessor, Thirteen Moons is a prodigiously researched historical novel, this time about the life of Will Cooper, 19th-century orphan, Cherokee adoptee, lawyer, businessman, lover, and man of feeling. For a sophomore effort, it is an impressively fine-tooled work of midcult craft—though maybe craftiness is the better word. When Cooper reunites, after decades of separation, with the love of his life, he writes, "At sixteen I had thought Claire was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. And also at seventeen, eighteen, twenty-three, thirty. But now [deep into middle age] she was only some of the person I remembered. I had never guessed she could ever look like this. She had been awfully pretty, but now she was beautiful." In the margin of the book, I wrote: "Nota bene: To move 4 million units, fifty-something women must love me." A few pages later, the sexually awakened Claire, who had been mourning the death of her husband (not Will), throws off her black crepe to appear in a "shining silk dress of midsummer green." In the margin of my book, I wrote: "Hollywood."
Thirteen Moons begins with an aged Will Cooper reflecting back over a panoramic life. He is rich and famous, a Smoky Mountain relic from the days before the Civil War, before the connivances of Yankee officialdom dispossessed the Appalachian South of its spirit. ("Whatever you believe and whatever god you pray to," Will tells us, "a place where clean water rises from the earth is someway sacred.") In a woozy reverie, Will remembers his old journals, piled to his attic ceiling—some of which were written, out of frontier necessity, in huckleberry juice—and goes on to spin the tale of his life. He was orphaned at a young age, then abandoned by his aunt and uncle to a wilderness trading post in the Cherokee territories of North Carolina. There, he found himself adopted by Indians, which, while romantic, was not necessarily preferable to being adopted by wolves. "There's a time in infancy," old Will tells us solemnly, "when they will take you in, offer up a dark teat to your human mouth and raise you in accord with their own lights, which would be both lovely and brutal."
Sacred water, huckleberry juice, wolf teats—Thirteen Moons, you may have guessed, is a catalog of faux naive Americana. Much of the book is written in a "ye olde" diction: People go "a-roving," and get "a-plenty of oats," and "travel retrograde to [their] anger," whatever that means. It's a yokely-dokely pastiche, of Faulkner (by way of Toni Morrison) and of the King James Bible (by way of Jack Handy), and it is to the actual American idiom, past or present, roughly what the Rainforest Café is to the Amazon basin. The aim is as follows: to indict the modern way of life, in tones of noble pathos, and at precisely zero cost to the modern reader's self-esteem. Great care is taken to ensure that huckleberry juice goes down nicely with that mochachino you're enjoying. Consider Frazier's talents for flattering multiple constituencies. Even as he extols the simple piety of the unlettered heart—a reverence for Native American illiteracy is announced no less than three times in the first 60 pages—the author winks maniacally to his old English-major friends, giving Will a horse named Waverly and throwing in showy namechecks, from Horace to Rousseau to Byron.
Many books are manipulative, of course, and a great many are trash, and a very sorry many of these become best sellers. And yet only a precious few reach the level of bad faith attained by Thirteen Moons. The novel is a commodity disguised as an act of witness against the culture of the commodity. To keep the ruse going, Frazier must take his talents, such as they are, to some strange lengths. Normally, yearning and consummation, however tastefully soft-core, would cancel each other out in the reader's mind. But Will suffers an epic sense of romantic loss and gets to tryst, in a style befitting Oui, repeatedly with Claire. Many lesser American writers, from James Fenimore Cooper on, have been forced to admit the frontier's hardships and privations while hymning its great beauty. Frazier, not so much. In his view, before technocracy and railroads and fast food nation, America, apparently, was … aisle 6 at Whole Foods. "We had decided not to cook," Will says of himself and Claire, "and ate only water crackers with soft cheese and hot-pepper jelly I had brought." A few pages later, though, they eat turkey "drizzled with vinegar." Drizzled. With vinegar. I kept expecting a man in a smock to peep out from between the red oaks and offer them some Tomme de Savoie.
Underneath all the yokely-dokely, Frazier has simply taken the attitudes of a 20th-century lifestyle magazine and placed them on a stage set borrowed from the 19th. ("Who you are is who you think you are," Will says to Claire at one point.) The key word here, one returned to frequently by Will, is desire, or as Claire herself puts it in her poem to Will, "wanting": "Be sleepless/ Sleepless and thinking of me./ Wanting me./ Only me." (His reply—you can look it up—floats to her window in a silk balloon.) Sick-making as this Griffin & Sabine doggerel is, it provokes a thought. She is a narcissist, then? A woman so wary of men accustoming themselves to her mysteries, she must always recede? Dance the dance of veils? Something? Please? Sadly, no; Claire is merely an ill-drawn twit. In fact, nothing so troubling as ambivalence is allowed to blemish the cozening surface of Frazier's prose. Will fights—as a lobbyist, as an attorney—on behalf of his Indian tribe, in an attempt to keep them on their plot of freely owned land. He duels with Featherstone, the gentleman-savage who absconds with his beloved Claire. Yet for all its plot turns, the novel never takes on any descriptive density. At its heart, Thirteen Moons is constructed out of nothing but flummery—artful flummery, but flummery nonetheless. So what are the terms of the flum?
The intuition that capitalism has robbed human beings of something essential has been a staple of art and thought since the advent of modern life, and it has been measured by writers as different in purpose and temperament as William Cobbett and T.S. Eliot. But what they never suggested was that hidden beneath the old rural folkways, the old courtesies, and the observances of traditional belief, lay all the liberties of interpersonal freedom. Strip them of their old-style hats and stilted speech, Frazier would have us believe, and our forefathers and mothers (the good ones, at least) were just like us: free, spontaneous individuals, life-affirming figures straight off a highway cigarette billboard. That the pose of sexy spontaneity Will and Claire enjoy with each other, it could be argued, is itself a product of modern life—of the factory and the wage system, of national markets and advertising, of the appurtenances, dreadful and otherwise, that swept away the quasi-aristocracy of the Old South—well, this never seems to perturb Frazier. The ahistorical conscience gets quite the workout in Thirteen Moons.
Perhaps sheltering the reader from unpleasantness is what saps Thirteen Moons of all its propulsive energy. "I would like to avoid the topic entirely," writes Will toward the end of his narrative, in such a blasé tone the reader immediately goes on alert. "[B]ut here it is. I held upward of four dozen negroes at the height of my enterprises." What follows are some (very brief) autumnal musings on the mistakes of youth. In the entire novel, there is only one direct representation of slavery. It seems that Bear, Will's Indian father and the novel's paragon of pre-modern virtue, once held a slave. "Though Bear understood slavery perfectly, he found the institution remarkably uninteresting, at least on his end of it." (Suggesting the question: How, precisely, could someone understand American slavery perfectly and still find it uninteresting?) Will continues with a charming anecdote about a time when Bear took possession of a new slave named Cudjo:
[H]e told Cudjo he was welcome to hang around if he cared to, but was not to call Bear his master and he was to expect much of anything from Bear other than what anyone in the community could expect—which was that if there was food in the pot you were welcome to eat a bowlful. … In short order, though, the two old men grew enormously fond of each other. … Very soon they began making a little joke between themselves at the expense of others. In front of some ignorant third party—particularly if the party was white—Cudjo would refer to Bear as Master. Bear would look at the ground and shake his head and then waggle one bulbous-jointed forefinger and say that being Cudjo's master was a job you couldn't pay a pile of silver money to take on. … Then Cudjo would say, Nevertheless, old Bear's my master now. He holds paper on me.
Then they'd both laugh like a pair of jays.
Never have I encountered a work of fiction less willing to levy any psychic tax on its readers. Sleep easy, dear reader, it assures us, in all its orotund little murmurs. The past makes no claim on you whatsoever. Sex, food, real estate—they would still be joyful, if not for all the lawyerly pettifogging of so-called progress. Spiced jellies—why, they grew on the forest floors, and the slaves, they laughed like jays!
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.