Exactly why Charles Frazier’s solemn, slow-as-molasses 1997 novel, Cold Mountain, became such a megahit remains a mystery. Logy rhythms, lavish attention to 1860s farming techniques, and obsessively honed prose are the stuff of a National Book Award winner, not a runaway best-seller. But Cold Mountain was both, and Frazier snagged an $8 million advance for his second novel, the eager-to-please — but less pleasing — Thirteen Moons.
In the misty southern Appalachians, geriatric narrator Will Cooper sits on his porch taking potshots at passing trains, lamenting modern annoyances like electricity, and reminiscing about his past as orphan, shopkeeper, senator, and ”white chief” of the Cherokee. Over the next windy 400 pages, he proceeds to flesh out this curriculum vitae in folksy detail, drawing from stacks of journals inscribed in boiled-huckleberry-juice ink.
The saga begins in earnest when Will is 12 and sent to work at a remote trading post near the fast-disappearing Cherokee lands. Already, the ”wet, black woods” have been stripped of bison and bears, replaced by hogs and ”stupid easy slot-eyed sheep.” Will bonds with two opposing Cherokee father figures: wise old Bear, who relishes the occasional bowl of yellow-jacket soup, and worldly Featherstone, who prefers French claret ”red as melted garnets.” Featherstone also has a nubile wife, Claire, with whom Will falls tragically in love — one of those undying youthful passions so dear to novelists, so rare in life. (”I held Claire, and that was that forever…”)
Surrounded by Cherokee, Will becomes a de facto Indian, taking their political cause to Washington, scheming on their behalf in land deals, and leading them into battle during the Civil War. Frazier remains a terrific describer of phenomena most of us have never encountered, and probably wouldn’t want to: the sound of a snake’s severed head hitting a redbud tree, ”like a knuckle pecking the door”; an old man savoring barbecued squirrel, working the tiny skull in his mouth ”like he was gumming tobacco”; the appearance of a scalped human head. It’s fertile material — so why is this novel so much less moving than Cold Mountain?
Maybe because building a novel from adventures strung out over a lifetime requires a deeply charismatic protagonist (Will isn’t) and a juicy final payoff for sticking with him (which Frazier doesn’t supply). Cold Mountain told the story of one man’s long walk home, but Frazier made you feel the weight of every step. Will’s tale is, by turns, amusing, bawdy, bloody, and poignant, but finishing one baggy chapter never leaves you panting for the next.