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Lavish voice tells an old man's tale

REVIEW BY SANDY BAUERS

When Will Cooper is 12 years old, his aunt and uncle give him a horse, a key, a map and, somewhat grudgingly, a knife with which to defend himself.

Then they send him off across the wilderness of early 1800s America to the edge of the Cherokee nation, probably western North Carolina, to run a small trading post.

So begins an improbable life that takes Will from poor to rich a few times over. He is adopted by the Indians. He becomes a lawyer, a senator and a Confederate colonel.

He falls hopelessly in love with a girl named Claire and never quite recovers. Maybe it's because of Granny Squirrel's potion, and maybe it's not.

Will's tale, Thirteen Moons, told from his perspective as an old man, is the eagerly awaited second novel from Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier.

Is it as good? Many think not. A friend whose literary opinions often jibe with mine took the rare step of throwing it down in disgust.

But I loved every minute of this lavish, wistful tale. And I credit Will Patton, who narrates the unabridged audio version.

Patton has long since proved himself as the voice of James Lee Burke's Louisiana detective, Dave Robicheaux. He has read Larry McMurtry, Ernest Hemingway and Pat Conroy.

He's got Southern grit, tempered with Southern mannerliness, down pat. Patton takes his time, lingering over the language. He transforms the novel into a massive fireside yarn.

His performance makes everything seem more important than it would be otherwise, which fits perfectly with Frazier's sometimes epic language.

Frazier and Patton both seem to bask in the natural world, what it looks like and why it's important. Once, when Will persuades an enemy not to kill him, they retire to a barroom and spend hours recalling the specific colors of every season in their mountain homeland.

When Bear, the old Indian who adopts Will, decides to immerse himself in the nearby river every morning to salve the ache of losing his first wife, Frazier describes in loving detail Bear's view of the changing seasons as he floats, from the spring buds that anoint the bare tree branches to winter's silent snowflakes.

You could opt for the abridgement that Random House has also published. But this isn't a plot-driven novel to hurry through.

Each CD ends with a soulful violin solo echoing the book's lush melancholy.

Not everything makes sense. Claire - and an unlikely admission she makes out of the blue nearly midway through the story - is problematic.

But that doesn't matter, either. She's also the siren that calls to Will through the ages, perhaps even to the very end as he totes up his successes and shortcomings and wrestles with a newfangled invention, the telephone.

Frazier makes me think that, sometimes, a novel might be like love; it can be diminished by too much analysis. Sometimes, maybe it's enough just to sit back and be swept away.

THE AUDIO BOOK

Thirteen Moons

By Charles Frazier

Unabridged audio version read by Will Patton

RH Audio, 16 hours on CD, $44.95

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