Book review / High peaks and tall tales

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier Sceptre, pounds 10
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Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Sceptre, pounds 10

The thing about the United States is there is just so much there there. It goes on forever on a scale most Brits can only imagine, or read about in books. If we think of contemporary American fiction as predominantly urban, there remains a flourishing literature of landscape, space and distance, the novelistic equivalent of John Ford's Westerns, in which the relationship between people and land is half symbiosis, half battle to the death.

This can easily become sentimental Sierra Clubism, with beauty and grandeur merely serving as backdrop to the search for self. But in the work of a Thomas McGuane or a Jim Harrison, landscape brings scale, a sense of human tidiness and absurdity. Indeed, McGuane is one of the few comic landscape writers - which isn't to say that he finds the American landscape funny. On the other hand, a writer such as Cormac McCarthy makes landscape and distance irreducibly terrifying elements that return humans to their bestial state.

It's clear that Charles Frazier has read his Cormac McCarthy. There is the same fondness for circumlocutions, for archaic words, for phrases with the cadences of some Southern Baptist's hellfire sermon: "Country of swill and sullage, sump of the continent. A miry slough indeed, and he could take little more of it." There you have that sense of the land's oppressive gravity, crushing those at life's sharpest edge.

This is Frazier's first novel, and it's not short on ambition. It's set during the American Civil War but, although Frazier isn't untroubled by the political details, he's not much concerned with exhuming history. What the war gives him is a huge quantity of suffering and cruelty: the ground to nurture his own variations on the Country Boy-meets-City Girl story.

A soldier called Inman, having suffered nearly fatal injuries at Fredericksburg, becomes a deserter by hopping through the hospital window and setting off back to Cold Mountain in North Carolina. There he hopes to find Ada, the city slicker he loves, now forced to learn country ways when her father dies.

Frazier signals his Transcendentalist ambitions by giving Ada a horse called Ralph and a cow called Waldo, and his Homeric affinities by having Ada read from the Odyssey. Such details can seem ponderous and presumptuous, but this is a first novel: let's give the guy a break. He deserves it.

Inman's journey to Cold Mountain is riddled with chance encounters, dalliances with soothsayers, fools and sages who hold him back while teaching him some extra detail about life and his place in it. A few of these characters might come straight from Central Casting (the errant preacher, the randy hillbilly girl), but each is rich with imagined particularity.

Back home, Ada learns the wisdom of the land, affording Frazier plenty of opportunities to indulge in that kind of pseudo-poetry that consists of a litany of pretty plant names: "Goldenrod and joe-pye weed and snakeroot blossomed tall along the fence rails".

For those of us for whom the local garden centre is quite close enough to wilderness, this can become tiresome, but Frazier earns our indulgence. He convinces us that, despite the hardship and brutality, this is a place where life's truest values hold sway, and where experience is real, immediate and present. That, too, can seem sentimental, as if truth is the prerogative of those with callused hands and sore backs, but Frazier's telling encourages us to put our doubts to one side.

The easiest thing to say about a first novel is what's wrong with it: too derivative, too long, too portentous, too much going on, not enough happening. You could say all of that about Cold Mountain, but you'd be missing its narrative vigour, its very real vision of humanity on the brink. In the end, that counts for more.