Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

What did it win?

National Book Award 1997

What’s it all about?

A wounded Confederate soldier named Inman gives up on the Cause and sets out on a long and perilous journey home to the Blue Ridge Mountains. His sweetheart Ada tries to make a run of her father’s farm while she pines for his return.

Was it really any good?

Not much. On the plus side, Frazier is competent when it comes to getting through a conventional narrative. But aside from that, in terms of its language, style, emotion and character, this is a numbingly derivative and pretentious book.

What makes a book “literary”? Well, aside from being written by an academic, the surest bad sign is the amount of time the characters spend reading or writing. Even worse, the amount of time they spend thinking about reading or writing. The first two chapters here get us off to a bad start, as we see Ada agonizing over writing a letter and Inman forming a special attachment to Bartram’s Travels. And by the way, where did Inman get so literate? Certainly not at his local schoolhouse (which he stalks out of). How is he supposed to be reading – aloud no less! – Bartram’s descriptions of the “floriferous and fragrant bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jessamine and cerulean Glycine frutescens”?

In term of style the whole book reads like a kitsch imitation of better Southern writing. There are a lot of the Biblical constructions and ironic understatements that have made up the Southern stock-in-trade at least since Faulkner. Meanwhile, the wandering figures of pure evil recall the gang of outlaws in McCarthy’s Outer Dark, but the similarity only serves to highlight the difference between Frazier’s drippy monotone and McCarthy’s orchestral syntax and over-the-top vocabulary. In Cold Mountain only one language is utilized. The author as well as all of his creations speak in the same cadenced and inflated drawl. Note the following paragraph:

When he arose from them, they were naught but thin hulls and his beard dripped pink juice into the dirt of the road. Inman stared down for some time onto the pattern the drops made to see if it held significance in the direction of augury, for he knew he needed aid, no matter from what strange fount it arose. The drops in the dust, though, offered no ready sign, neither pictograph nor totem, no matter from what angle he viewed them. The invisible world, he declared to himself, had abandoned him as a gypsy soul to wander singular, without guide or chart, through a broken world composed of little but impediment.

There is no break in either the rhythm or the artificiality of the construction from what the author observes to what Inman declares to himself. But while the writing has a flow, it remains unconvincing. The “naught but,” “what strange fount” and “wander singular” catch on the throat. They have been placed there for our special consideration, but seem to have wandered outside of their natural habitat (wherever that might be).

Finally there is the story itself. What the story wants – what it really, really wants – is for us to see it as a kind of Civil War Odyssey. What it turns out to be is an idiot cousin to Gone With the Wind. Think Golden Age of Hollywood crossed with Movie of the Week. Ada is a retread of Scarlett O’Hara, the (relatively) well-off, refined Southern girl who has to get her hands dirty and take over the chores while the menfolk are off a-fightin’. Ruby is another cliché, coming across as the nineteenth-century equivalent of a personal trainer as she whips fancy-girl Ada into shape and teaches her to learn from nature instead of books (“We might all take instruction from the crow.”).

A nurse novel for those who think they are above such things. Not as bad a book as The English Patient, but definitely more of the same.

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