For friends of good books, a triumph

September 01, 1997|By George F. Will

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The story of ''Cold Mountain's'' success -- it is currently the best-selling work of fiction -- speaks well of the nation's literary taste and the publishers, reviewers and booksellers who shape and serve it. This is a story like the one the novel tells, one of regional and local particularities, with national resonance.

Charles Frazier, 46, toiled on this, his first novel, for six years. He lives near Raleigh, where he and his wife raise horses and a daughter. His novel takes readers on a long, eventful, sometimes harrowing walk from a Confederate hospital in Raleigh to the mountain late in 1864. It is a trek Mr. Frazier imagines for his great-great-uncle Inman, who, like his namesake in the novel, left the Confederate cause after Petersburg.

Inman's is a walk on the wild side, through a semi-frontier society on the losing side of a war. The murderous Teague and the Home Guard, and some of the book's darkest moments, come from the historical record.

''Cold Mountain'' is not a Civil War novel like, for example, Michael Shaara's ''The Killer Angels.'' It is not about famous men fighting familiar battles, although Mr. Frazier's brief treatment of the fighting at Fredericksburg would do Mr. Shaara or Stephen Crane proud.

Rather, ''Cold Mountain'' is a love story involving a soldier who has learned ''how frail the human body is against all that is sharp and hard'' and who is seeking ''a life so quiet he would not need ears.'' He hopes that by reaching Ada he can blink away ''the metal face of the age.''

Mr. Frazier breathes new life into delectable old words of regional dialect (a foolish person is ''clodpated''). He writes like a man frolicking in the language with the energy of the trout he describes as ''bright and firm as shavings from a bar of silver.'' Asked if he considers himself a regional writer, he allows as how he can hardly think of a writer who isn't.

A justified gamble

His book's success radiated from the Southeast region, where every bookstore and newspaper received galleys or early copies. The publisher, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, believed the book justified the gamble because ''when you finish it you can't not talk to someone about it.''

A grand fact about contemporary America is that the literary marketplace works remarkably well. It does because the brotherhood and sisterhood of the book business, including publishers, their traveling representatives, reviewers for local newspapers and booksellers -- particularly the small, hardy independents who know their customers' tastes -- love books. A labor of that love is talking about the books they love most ardently.

As Nan Talese of Doubleday did with another surprising success, Thomas Cahill's ''How the Irish Saved Civilization,'' Mr. Entrekin even sent galleys of ''Cold Mountain'' to other publishers' reps, confident they would spread the word. They did. Vintage, a division of Random House, bought the paperback rights (Vintage recently had success with another literary gem, David Guterson's ''Snow Falling on Cedars''), and helped build the demand for Grove/Atlantic's hard-cover edition.

Elaine Petrocelli and her husband run Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Corte Madera, just outside San Francisco. The store, a sort of year-round literary seminar, has about 400 author events a year. She says that by the time their initial order of 40 copies of ''Cold Mountain'' reached her store, the staff was passionately committed to the book. They have now sold 180 copies.

Mr. Frazier credits similar stores nationwide, such as the one in Blytheville, Ark., called That Bookstore in Blytheville, and Lemuria in Jackson, Miss. He also believes reviewers in local newspapers have special credibility. There have been many ripple effects from these stores and reviewers. For example, the library at the University of South Carolina, where Mr. Frazier studied with James Dickey and others, has mounted an exhibit of the 19th-century books mentioned in ''Cold Mountain.''

By now ''Cold Mountain'' has ignited a self-sustaining word-of-mouth chain reaction. The first printing, around Memorial Day, was 25,000. Soon, the 13th printing will put the total over 500,000. For Mr. Frazier, and for friends of serious literature, the numbers are (to borrow his words) as soothing as creek noise.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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