Edge of Dark Water by Joe R Lansdale
It’s surprising how quickly time seems to fly by when old age starts to affect memory. It seems only yesterday I read The Bottoms, and a few hours ago that I finished the final, immensely satisfying page of A Fine Dark Line. Now I find myself with Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, 2012), a third standalone novel that takes us back in time and into the depths of darkest Texas where subsistence communities eked out a living in backwater counties. For all Lansdale is perhaps better known as the author of the Hap and Leonard series, The Bottoms won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and shows that, if he has a mind to, he can write a beautiful mystery novel with thrillerish overtones. What makes these three novels interesting is the decision to use young people as the point of view. Harry Crane and Stanley Mitchell are both thirteen. Here we have another first-person narrative, this time featuring Sue Ellen who’s managed to arrive at sixteen without a major fatal incident affecting her progress. We’re pitched straight into the story when Daddy, Uncle Gene and a young friend, Terry Thomas, pull the body of May Lynn Baxter out of the river. She’s been visiting with the local fish courtesy of a Singer sewing machine tied to her legs. Despite the protests of the adults, Terry insists on reporting the find to the town’s law enforcement officer. They don’t seriously think this will produce any results but, to the young-uns, it feels the right thing to do when one of their own age has been murdered. Later Jinx, the third member of the teen gang, joins in and they go across the river, intending to talk to dead girl’s father. He’s not there, but what they find is the trigger for the story to pick up pace.
One of the young’s more endearing qualities is their innocence. Most lose it quite early on in life but, when it’s running at full throttle, it can pick them up and move them along without any sense of danger. In this instance, what our heroes hoped would be a quick search and rescue mission becomes complicated when they find more than they bargained for. Moments later, what had been a dream of leaving and finding somewhere better to live becomes an urgent necessity. Yet, of course, running away when you’re in the back of beyond and can’t drive is something of a challenge. So begins the dance between pursuers and pursued. Which way would they go and how fast could they travel? Ah, the niceties of these little judgements. And those running should do well to remember their school lessons and the perils of the lotus eaters.
This is a book about the casual violence found in these small communities. Death is not something to make a fuss about. It happens and the law is never really interested unless the wrong people die. Husbands abuse their wives and children. The strong bully the weak. In such circumstances, only the more intelligent and sensitive ever feel guilt over the things they see, hear and do. Most ignore moral considerations. Survival is all that matters. As in other novels, Joe R. Lansdale also deals with the institutionalised racism of the South. A few years before this is set, lynching was the easy way out for a black man accused of crime. If it was considered a bad offence, he might find himself castrated and set on fire — the later hanging would come as a welcome release. In this novel, the treatment the young Jinx receives shows how social attitudes are hard-wired into the communities. On the way, we also meet a young family who’ve been caught up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. They are living as hobos, hopping trains from here to there. It’s a hard life for most in the Great Depression.
In terms of plot, I was reminded of Deliverance by James Dickey, but the real resonance comes from The Executioners by John D. MacDonald as adapted for the screen by J Lee Thompson and, in the remake, by Martin Scorsese. The film versions carrying the title Cape Fear crackle with the same malevolence as Max Cady stalks the family in their houseboat. To keep the censors happy, the directors water down the central message from both Dickey and MacDonald’s originals: that the use of deadly force in defence of yourself and others you care about is always justified in the last resort. Joe R. Lansdale is not subject to the cultural restrictions of the cinema so, when it comes to this group floating down the river on their raft, particularly in dealing with the final confrontation between the hunted and their hunter, he can let his creative juices flow. The set-up is handled beautifully. The first mentions of the man on their trail already begin the process of mythologising him. When we are allowed a view of the results of his work, it confirms the myths may have erred on the side of generosity. This is a real monster as the rising body count testifies.
As always, the use of language is half the interest in the reading. It wouldn’t be a Joe R. Lansdale book unless it made you smile and, occasionally, laugh out loud. He has a rare talent with words and finds humour in even the darkest of moments. Edge of Dark Water is very much a thriller with only a minor mystery element to resolve. The young trio that must contend for their lives are racially and sexually diverse. Jinx is probably the most self-aware and certainly gives as good as she gets. Sue Ellen quickly comes to see the world more clearly and Terry Thomas has real problems to resolve. Merely surviving is the rite of passage for them as the river carries them further away from home but not into a safer place. It’s an exciting edge-of-the-seat ride for us, making this is one of the best thrillers of the last five and more years. It’s destined to become a classic like Deliverance, The Executioners and their film versions. Read it or miss out!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.