A Yarn Finely Spun

NOVELISTS ARE NEVER IN SHORT supply. Natural-born storytellers come along only rarely. Charles Frazier joins the ranks of that elite cadre on the first page of his astonishing debut, Cold Mountain (356 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24). A Civil War soldier, Inman, is recuperating from a gunshot wound in an army hospital in Raleigh, N.C., where he passes the time reading naturalist William Bartram's "Travels" and staring out the window. "The window was tall as a door, and he had imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there." That sentence is like a hand in the small of your back. At the end of that chapter, when Inman skips out of the hospital and heads for home in the mountains near Asheville, you're as ready to roam as he is.

Frazier based his family stories told Inman, the author's grandfather, who deserted in the midst of the Civil War and walked home. Around that armature he wraps a narrative that is equal parts adventure yarn, war novel and love story. Those elements have been the ingredients of many a potboiler, but no hack ever dreamed up a protagonist like Inman. The horrors of war have hollowed him out, leaving him to ponder how "a man's spirit could be torn apart and cease and yet his body keep on living." Two things keep him going: the thought of Ada Monroe, an unapproachable beauty for whom he'd fallen before the war, and the memory of Cold Mountain. For Inman, this peak looming over his home symbolizes all that's right with the world, "a place where all his scattered forces might gather."

Nature, though, is never simple in Frazier's cosmos. Inman nearly starves and almost freezes to death contending with nature on his way home. And while he constantly dodges vigilante posses, men as evil as any you'd ever want to meet, it's the natural world in the end that constitutes his greatest foe. And his greatest friend. "Cold Mountain's" best lesson is that the natural world is not something to be conquered but something before which we must humbleourselves. "The creek's turnings," Frazier writes, "marked how all that moves must shape itself to the maze of actual landscape, no matter what its preferences might be."

Frazier's descriptions of farmwork and animals are the work of a man with firsthand knowledge, and it is no surprise to discover that the 46-year-old author raises horses for a living. But where he learned to conjure war's horror with a poet's economy ("the mere existence of the Henry repeating rifle or the eprouvette mortar made all talk of spirit immediately antique") is anyone's guess.

The pleasure of Frazier's language--forceful and perfectly cadenced to capture the flavor of a long-gone era--is merely a side dish. Inman's trek and Ada's struggle to manage a small mountain farm are told in alternating chapters. As these narratives converge, their yearning for each other grows more intense, and so does our suspense. The genuinely romantic saga of Ada and Inman is a page turner that attains the status of literature. In a closing note of acknowledgment, Frazier apologizes for taking liberties with "W. P. Inman's life and with the geography surrounding Cold Mountain (6030 feet)." One must assume that he is merely being polite. This writer owes apologies to no one.