The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale
The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, 2013) continues the line of books in which we view the world through the first-person narrative of a young adult. I suppose a classic example of this literary device would be Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a copy of which is owned by Shorty in this book) in which the inexperienced narrator tells the story as best as he or she can. Obviously the inexperience includes both the art of storytelling and understanding of how the world works. Thus, it’s not uncommon to find such narrators unreliable in what they tell us. If the young person has never been in this type of situation before, it’s easy for the readers to understand how easily “things” may be misunderstood, i.e. the author decides not to make the book a considered autobiography in which the older and wiser version of the narrator takes a more objective view of the past and smiles ruefully at his or her naive behaviour. Rather the reader is left to sink or swim in the mind of this youngster, flailing around to try to understand more exactly what’s going on. This can either be very successful as the reader increasingly identifies with the narrator or it becomes a slight barrier between the reader and the character.
In this very successful instance, we’re immediately pitched into crisis with our first-person narrator, Jack Parker. He’s a sixteen-year old boy and with his sister, Lula who’s fourteen, they find themselves surrounded by death as an epidemic of smallpox hits their part of East Texas and their parents die. Fortunately, their grandfather has survived an earlier outbreak of the disease and has natural immunity. He sets up a plan to leave their interests protected and they set off out of harm’s way to Kansas. Unfortunately, there’s a fight on a river ferry with three desperadoes, and the youngsters are separated when a water spout hits the ferry and breaks it apart. The rest of the book then follows Jack in his efforts to find his sister and, as is likely to be necessary, rescue her from Cut Throat Bill, Nigger Pete and Fatty Worth. They had just robbed a bank and were making their getaway across the river. When the ferry breaks up, they decide to keep Lula to do the washing and other chores.
To help in the rescue effort, he reaches an agreement with Eustace Cox, his hog and Shorty (aka Reginald Jones). Eustace is part white, part coloured and part Comanche. Shorty, as his name suggests, is a dwarf who’s reached an accommodation with the world. He embraces loneliness, his books and an interest in astronomy, and leaves the world to its own devices. As a man who developed his wit and intelligence while working in a circus, he shakes Jack out of the rut into which his mind has dropped. When you’re young, it’s an easy life when you can rely on parents, a grandfather who’s a preacher and God. But when the others die and all you have left is God, you have to decide whether you’re going to trust in the Lord or do something to help yourself even though this may involve some dishonesty like stealing or something approaching homicide if it’s necessary to liberate your sister. In this, Shorty delivers the philosophical rationale for what needs to be done. Sneaking up on people and killing them before they know you’re coming is best. If that’s not possible, shooting them from as a safe a distance as possible is the answer. If you’re sixteen-years-old and close enough to use a knife, you’re already too close to death to worry what happens next. Of course what happens next is our hero meets Jimmie Sue and learns a whole lot more about the world than he was expecting and they even get the support of the law in the shape of Sheriff Winton. When Spot joins them, the rescue team with revenge and bounty on their minds is complete, and they can start moving toward the Thicket where the bad guys are said to be hiding.
Placing this book in the scale of style Lansdale adopts, this is more in the Hap and Leonard approach with a delightful admixture of violent mayhem and dark humour. Some of the descriptive prose and dialogue are mordantly hilarious as our heroic youngster comes of age through a slightly more bloody rite of passage than usual. Indeed, there’s quite a body count by the time we get to the end so, in fairness to those not familiar with the Lansdale approach to thriller writing, it may not be a book for the faint-hearted. Personally, I think this one of his best books to date.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.