‘Cold Mountain’ follow-up not so hot

Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" was one of the best books of the 1990s. That novel, his first, won him a National Book Award and a reported $8 million advance for his follow-up, "Thirteen Moons." Given all that, how could Frazier come up with . this?

"Thirteen Moons" isn't awful; it just falls woefully short of admittedly high expectations.

Frazier's new novel is the disjointed tale of Will Cooper, a frontier dweller who is sent to work in Cherokee territory by faithless relatives at the end of the 19th century.

As he grows up, he finds a father figure among the Cherokee, love in a hot-blooded half-Cherokee southern belle and a calling as a legal advocate for American Indians.

The novel seesaws between these disparate aspects of Will's life without finding a middle ground. Frazier has 420 pages to get these elements to adhere into a something cohesive, but he just can't do it.

Part of the trouble is Frazier's choice of narrative device. He has written "Thirteen Moons" as if Will is an old man recalling his past.

Will adopts a discomfortingly passive and detached voice that saps the writing of much of its emotion.

At some points, Will even declares he won't tell the reader what really happened and instead offers several possible scenarios and tells the reader to pick whichever he or she likes best. Characterization is also a weakness. Will is capricious, hormonal and ultimately boring. His circumstances are incredibly unlikely and go unmitigated by heroism, passion or anything larger than everyday wants.

There are so many descriptions of the meals he eats, the books he reads and the horse he favors it makes Frazier's inattention to Claire, whom we're told but not shown is Will's true love, all the more inexcusable. Who is Claire? The reader can't tell. There is never a good physical description of Claire and her inner motivations, thoughts and desires are never revealed. She's not mysterious, she's practically nonexistent.

In one of the many scenes in which Will watches Claire leave for what he thinks is for good, Frazier has Will observe not Claire's face or his own feelings at seeing her go, but the way the wagon boards squeak. That's not the stuff memorable fiction is made of.

That being said, Frazier has his strengths as a writer. His tone is consistent and style unflinching. "Thirteen Moons" also has some unexpected nuggets of description that are so lucid they demand to be read more than once.

"Cold Mountain" was descriptive, insightful and sweepingly epic, and flashes of the writer who wrote that novel can be seen in "Thirteen Moons."

But in the grand scheme of things, Frazier doesn't employ enough insight or lyrical skill to save "Thirteen Moons." A novel like "Cold Mountain" can't really be written twice, but Frazier could've tried harder than this.

The Verdict: **