There is perhaps nothing so suspect in this day and age as enthusiasm, particularly in the service of the sell. Savvy shoppers know how to read the highly coded language of the book-jacket blurb for the usual signs of proprietary interest or industry log-rolling, the smoke screens of personal connection and backhanded praise that can betray a taint to the blurbist's enthusiasm. It is the business of the blurb to get carried away, but to a point. The fact is that the blurb writer seldom puts his or her ass on the line, and it is a rare occasion when a blurb's enthusiasm is so crazy and unrestrained--so presumptuous and even embarrassing--that an immediate reading seems necessary for corroboration.
Case in point: Charles Frazier's first novel Cold Mountain (Atlantic Monthly Press), released in June in a modest first printing of 25,000 copies and presently sitting atop the best-seller lists (500,000 copies and counting in print, with first editions already selling in the $75 range). The jacket of Frazier's book includes perhaps the most feverishly pitched collection of prepublication blurbs ever assembled (imagine that tag on a back cover!), including this from Rick Bass: "This novel is so magnificent--in every conceivable aspect, and others previously unimagined--that it has occurred to me that the shadow of this book, and the joy I received in reading it, will fall over every other book I ever read. It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one. Cold Mountain is one of the great accomplishments in American literature."
That's mighty high praise for a 46-year-old first-time novelist from North Carolina, yet reviewers around the country have been equally unrestrained in their admiration for Cold Mountain. Frazier's novel--loosely modeled on the Odyssey--tells the story of a shell-shocked Civil War soldier named Inman, walking home from a military hospital to reunite with his sweetheart in the Carolina mountains. Frazier's elegant and spare style most obviously recalls the work of Cormac McCarthy, whose own All the Pretty Horses was a rare recent example of a book of genuine literary merit storming the best-seller lists (without a shove from Oprah Winfrey).
The character of Inman, in fact, could almost have stepped straight from any number of McCarthy's novels, with a crucial distinction. Inman is a stoic and virtuous man with the exception of a monstrous glitch: He has seen and done too much killing and now he is no longer certain he can ever again live free or whole in the world. Yet, in opposition to McCarthy, Frazier's deftest stroke is in allowing Inman to step free of the book's beautiful language and landscapes and let himself be fully known. Inman's harrowing and often catastrophic journey home is skillfully interwoven with the story of his sweetheart Ada's struggles to carve out a subsistence on her dead father's farm--a task for which she has been woefully unprepared by her coddling and prodigiously impractical father.
Ada is rescued, and eventually empowered by, a sturdy mountain orphan, Ruby. There are numerous lovely sections in which the two women resuscitate the old farm and achieve a measure of self-sufficiency. The novel's conclusion is a tailor-made piece of cinematic heartbreak, and even now it is impossible to read the section without hearing the inevitable crescendo of strings that will accompany the scene on the big screen.
The success of Frazier's novel is at first glance the latest example of America's ongoing fascination with Little Engine That Could stories. Beyond that, however, the seemingly unimaginable good fortune of Cold Mountain is also instructive in that the story of the Sleeper of the Year might mark the death of the true sleeper. Which is to say that these days, even sleepers are heavily engineered, financed, and marketed--often as sleepers. There is perhaps nothing that people in the publishing industry like more than to get hit by a truck that no one allegedly saw coming, even if it involves the seeming impossibility of getting hit by a truck that they are, in fact, driving.
In the case of Cold Mountain, publisher, sales reps, and booksellers alike are united in crediting its staggering success to effusive word-of-mouth and zealous regional handselling by independent booksellers. The national chains and reviewers were a step or two behind, with the result that by the time many people got wind of Frazier's novel the book was already in its later printings and headed for the best-seller lists. All of which was seemingly part of Grove-Atlantic's crock-pot marketing plan the whole time.
In 1995 Frazier's North Carolina neighbor, novelist Kaye Gibbons, had read his unfinished manuscript and passed it along to an agent, Leigh Feldman, who sold the book to Atlantic Monthly Press for six figures. That's a substantial advance for an unfinished first novel by an unknown writer, and a pretty clear indication that Atlantic figured it had something special on its hands. By the time the book was published in June, the Little Engine was already building steam, thanks to heavy promotion in the South and wide circulation of advance copies. Long before the book landed on the best-seller charts, Vintage had bought the paperback rights for $300,000 and the movie rights had been peddled for $1.25 million, with The English Patient's Anthony Minghella slated to direct.
"They definitely knew what they had," says Tom Bielenberg, the buyer for St. Paul's Hungry Mind--one of the independents credited with breaking the book. "At the National Book Expo last spring they had a big stack of Cold Mountain and were talking it up. From there it really traveled by word-of-mouth. It's a wonderful book, and has been our biggest-selling novel for the last several months."
Betty Redmond, a Chicago-based sales rep for Grove-Atlantic, got an early look at the manuscript in November of 1996, and was excited by the book's potential. "I read the book, loved it, and pitched it as best I could," she said. "And I was not alone. A lot of the other reps around the country really loved this book. I think it's a rare story that manages to appeal equally to both men and women. There are particularly strong female characters, and there aren't a lot of male writers who can pull that off."
The real job of the reps is to get enough copies into the store to ensure good placement--space on the display tables and what Redmond calls "good face-out." The buzz that was passed along from rep to store buyer to bookseller got Cold Mountain up and running in the independents, with the result that a lot of national outlets were caught off-guard. By the time the book really took off, Redmond was receiving calls from desperate buyers. "People were covering their tracks," she says. "By the time they started to hear about the book they were calling to find out if they had missed something. You know, our expectations were strong, but we certainly never expected Cold Mountain to hit number one. It's really gratifying as a rep to know that this can still happen."
It is gratifying for a reader as well, but discomfiting too. Cold Mountain is a genuinely fine and ambitious and virtuous novel, yet there is always something frightening about the sort of exposure and scrutiny best-seller status brings to books and writers. There is a suspicion that such a stroke of lightning might not be the best thing in the world for a 46 year-old virgin novelist. What, you wonder, must "Chuck" Frazier (as we have already learned he is known to his dear friend Kaye Gibbons) be thinking? How must it feel to be hog-piled up there on the lists with Danielle Steel and Barbara Taylor Bradford and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul?
That we all should be so terribly lucky and talented to find out.
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