ON an afternoon years ago, William Eastlake, a Nobel-caliber American author, was holding a cue stick and gazing at the configuration of colored balls on the table when he was asked a casual but serious question:
"What's the best thing a writer can do to get better?"
His glaring eyes jumped across the table.
"Read," he growled.
Hawk-like, he surveyed the field again and began to raise his cue when a second thought stopped him.
"But don't read ... ," he snapped. "Only read good stuff."
Eastlake is gone from the world but his words still echo. They were summoned out of storage on reading Charles Frazier's novel, "Thirteen Moons," the much-anticipated follow-up to his 1997 bestselling novel "Cold Mountain." Had Eastlake been asked, he would have conceded that "good stuff" was profoundly rare. Had he lived to read "Thirteen Moons," he would certainly have placed it in that category for the finest literary reasons.
"Thirteen Moons" is rare in many ways and occupies a literary plane of such height that reviewing it is not really salient. Frazier's novel meets none of the criteria applied to popular fiction -- no fast action, only hints of suspense, no steamy scenes to provoke arousal, no obvious resolution.
The setting for "Thirteen Moons" is, like the novel's other ingredients, excitingly original. Taking readers to the American wilderness of the 19th century, the story, told by Will Cooper, concerns the struggles and triumphs of an individual who traces his life from a traumatic boyhood to the surreality of extreme old age.
"I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel," Will begins, an old man sitting by a fire with pen and paper. "We're called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else. It is the last unmapped country, and a dark way getting there."
But before his departure on this journey, Will looks back on other journeys. His inimitable but universal life runs parallel to the periods when the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from its homeland in the Deep South to the alien country of Oklahoma Territory. With exquisite skill, Frazier avoids applying blatant emotion to their removal, choosing instead to describe it as it was: a tedious, vain and pitiful struggle against an insatiable enemy.
Though it is never promoted, knowledge of the Indian way of life permeates the book and is directly linked with the marvelously portrayed seasons of life. As a youth, Will ran a remote trading post, developed a bond with Bear, who was "a chief in these parts," and pieced together a history of Bear and his fellow Cherokees.
"It is tempting to look back at Bear's people from the perspective of this modern world and see them as changeless and pure, authentic people in ways impossible for anybody to be anymore," he writes. "We need Noble Savages for our own purposes. Our happy imaginings about them and the pure world they occupied do us good when incoherent change overwhelms us. But even in those early days when I was first getting to know Bear and his people, I could see that change and brutal loss had been all they had experienced for two centuries.
"Many of them were busy taking up white ways of life that baffled them. With every succeeding retreat of the Nation and every incursion of America, the old ways withdrew a step farther into the mountains, deeper up the dark coves and tree-tunneled creeks. It was not any kind of original people left. No wild Indians at all, and little raw wilderness. They were damaged people, and they lived in a broken world like everybody else."
Through all, Frazier manages to stay intimate and distant simultaneously. Even the narrator, whose opinions and feelings are clear, offers no scathing judgments. He sticks to his life. A late descent into insanity is not only justified, it's perfectly logical. The element of language plays a vital role in the making of this beautiful book, but Frazier never shows off or grandstands his remarkable grasp of words. Taken as a whole, his novel is a spiritual work; and the elements that make it such are precisely fitted cornerstones of real literature -- no gimmicks or formulas are invoked. "Do you dissipate like a drop of blood in a bucket of milk," Will asks at one point, pondering the Cherokees' fate, "or do you persist, a small stone tossed into a rushing river?"
Will, Bear and the novel's other characters are drawn distinctively from a wildly diverse human lineup yet none, not even the fascinating protagonist, who becomes many things during his nine decades (merchant, Indian chief, state senator), shines in bright light. All are so shadowed by Creation. Their disappearances from the world are most often ascribed no more than a sentence.
Any aspiring writer who follows Eastlake's directive and dives into the pages of "Thirteen Moons" will emerge with an impression that is twofold. The first will be defeat at the prospect of writing as well as Frazier. The second will be a renewed determination to reach higher into the world of the written word. "Thirteen Moons" has the power to inspire great performances from succeeding generations of writers.
For those who simply value the literary experience, "Thirteen Moons" will provide the immense satisfaction of taking a literary journey of magnitude. Whether on a plane, in an office or curled in a window seat, readers who absorb Will's story will find their own lives enriched.
"Thirteen Moons" belongs to the ages.
Michael Blake is the author of several novels, including "Dances With Wolves," and, most recently, a study of American Indians in the 19th century, "Indian Yell: The Heart of an American Insurgency."