‘Cold Moun­tain’ au­thor Charles Fra­zier pub­lishes new novel

The Day - - DAYBREAK - By DAN CRYER News­day

When Charles Fra­zier’s de­but novel was pub­lished 21 years ago, it cat­a­pulted its late-bloom­ing au­thor into lit­er­ary star­dom. “Cold Moun­tain” fol­lowed a Con­fed­er­ate de­serter’s epic jour­ney to re­join his lover at home in North Carolina, put an Amer­i­can twist on Homer’s Odyssey and won the Na­tional Book Award. The movie ver­sion be­came a hit for Mi­ra­max and gar­nered an Os­car for Renée Zell­weger.

Since then, the light has all but gone out. Fra­zier’s sec­ond novel, “Thir­teen Moons,” about a white man who champions the Cherokee as they are pushed off their an­ces­tral home­lands, tra­versed huge chunks of Amer­i­can his­tory in a prose of­ten dis­par­aged as over­wrought. “Night­woods,” a melo­dra­matic South­ern Gothic set in the 1960s, re­ceived rel­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion, ex­cept for more barbs about stylis­tic ex­cess.

Thank God that Amer­ica is a land of sec­ond chances. Fra­zier’s lat­est, “Va­rina,” is a splen­did his­tor­i­cal novel just right for our time. It trans­forms the wife of Jef­fer­son Davis into a sym­bol of grit and wit, open-mind­ed­ness and tol­er­ance. By con­trast, the pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­acy comes off as rigid, racist and self-right­eous. Down with one icon, up with an­other! Coin­ci­den­tally or not, the book seems an apt text for up-to-the-minute dis­cus­sions of gen­der and racial in­equal­ity. Book club mem­bers, talk among your­selves.

The novel opens in 1906 at a spa in Saratoga, New York, where the el­derly Va­rina Davis is hop­ing to shed her long de­pen­dency on opium. She is ap­proached by James Blake, an African-Amer­i­can who be­lieves he may be the or­phan slave boy she res­cued and took into her house­hold years ago. What fol­lows for both is an eye-open­ing jour­ney into the past.

In brief, as­tutely ob­served chap­ters, Fra­zier jumps from one era to an­other. We wit­ness the teenage Va­rina marry a man twice her age, be­liev­ing she will lead a placid ex­is­tence as wife of a Mis­sis­sippi plan­ta­tion owner. In­stead, she is plunged into Wash­ing­ton’s po­lit­i­cal mael­strom as he rises from con­gress­man to se­na­tor to sec­re­tary of war to Con­fed­er­ate fig­ure­head. Al­ways, she’s the ir­rev­er­ent one, de­fy­ing con­ven­tion and at­ten­tive to the ab­surd. Hence the opium to calm her nerves, and the pres­ence of a black child liv­ing among her own chil­dren.

As the Civil War ends, Va­rina, her brood and a few slaves flee south­ward across a ruined land­scape, des­per­ate to find refuge in Havana. That will not hap­pen. Much of her bleak post­war life is spent in Europe or New York while her hus­band is in prison or else­where, sep­a­rated not only phys­i­cally but emo­tion­ally. But for James, her lov­ing in­ter­ven­tion will open up new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Fra­zier’s lyri­cal, rhyth­mic prose is equally adept at evok­ing a Ge­or­gia dev­as­tated by Sher­man’s March, a tor­ren­tial rain­storm or Va­rina’s shift­ing moods. For the most part, he’s shut down the bom­bast. Oc­ca­sion­ally, though, I did de­tect lapses, pas­sages sup­pos­edly in Va­rina’s voice that veer into that of a word-drunk South­ern nov­el­ist.

No be­liever in fate, Va­rina swears in­stead by the de­ci­sive role of choice. By not mar­ry­ing the tu­tor she loved in Mis­sis­sippi, she re­al­izes, she chose un­wisely. “In Lon­don,” Fra­zier writes, “she could al­most for­get the past, … de­tails of her old life seemed like a mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion, ar­ti­facts to study and un­der­stand.”

But the past, as Faulkner once re­minded us and Fra­zier echoes, is never re­ally past. For James, the past of slav­ery has been re­placed by a new ver­sion. Rid­ing the train to Rich­mond for Va­rina’s fu­neral, he’s forced to sit in the “col­ored car” and pon­ders how it’s pos­si­ble “to love some­one and still want to throw down ev­ery rem­nant of the or­der they lived by.”

“VA­RINA” BY CHARLES FRA­ZIER Ecco (351 pages, $27.99)

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