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The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale

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.

Joe R. Lansdale dressed for some black humour

Joe R. Lansdale dressed for some black humour

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.

For other reviews of books by Joe R. Lansdale, see:
Devil Red
Edge of Dark Water
Hyenas
Vanilla Ride.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R Lansdale

February 25, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Joe R Lansdale expecting writing action with pen in hand and to hand

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!

For other reviews of books by Joe R. Lansdale, see:
Devil Red
Hyenas
The Thicket
Vanilla Ride.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hyenas by Joe R Lansdale

October 26, 2011 1 comment

Hyenas by Joe R Lansdale is another of these novellas published by Subterranean Press (2011). It’s an elegant design with some nifty jacket art by Glen Orbik so, in theory, we’re on to another winner. After all, under normal circumstances, you can’t go wrong with a Hap & Leonard story, now can you? Well, here’s the rub. This is the tenth outing for the dynamic duo, so those of us who have read them all can begin to see patterns. We know you have the set-up when our defenders of the innocent will acquire a “job” of some kind. This will usually involve the use of moderate violence. Whichever one is doling out the beating or “punishment” will usually only want to make an appeal to reason. After all, they know from experience most bears always back away when struck a few time with a baseball bat. Except, of course, those pesky bears can lurk in the woods for an hour or so, and come on their own little home visit to ask for revenge. The rest of the story is usually an extended discussion on the merits of a hat as a form of disguise or whether success in fighting is down to physical size or skill. Because our two heroes are expected to return for another adventure, they have to emerge the winners in this pissing competition or it’s declared an honourable draw with both sides walking away to lick their wounds and screw their partners until blissful sleep overtakes them.

As a formula, there’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre, but we Lansdale fans forgive structural limitations because we find the author amusing. Yes, there will be bones broken and bullets flying, but it’s all done in the best possible taste, mojo style. In other words, Lansdale makes even the grimmest of stories fun by the banter and repartee between the odd couple, their loved ones and those with whom they contend.

Joe R Lansdale disconcerted by the sudden arrival of three spears at his table

Except Hyenas is a little thin. That’s not thinness in terms of length, you understand. We know from the size of the book this is not one of the longest stories ever written. But the fabric of the narrative is somewhat perfunctory. We have one of the standard plots, but the Lansdale touch seems less evident this time round. There are one or two good lines which provoked a smile but, frankly, not enough of them to sustain this “thin” story. Normally, Lansdale distracts the reader with a mass of irrelevant detail. This is a little bald, even without the hat joke.

I suspect the good folk at Subterranean Press had their doubts because the slim volume is padded out with a short story. “The Boy Who Became Invisible” is a Hap solo — in the old pun sense of him being so lowdown, he’s like a snake. I won’t spoil this short short story by talking about the plot but, like all casual cruelty between peers, it doesn’t show anyone in a good light. I suppose it does shed a sliver of light on how Hap came to be the adult he is, but I’m not convinced. Worse, I’m not convinced the inclusion of this story adds real value to the book. So, I’m in the slightly unusual position of advising people to wait for a novella to be republished in a collection where it will hopefully be a better value purchase. Of course all true Lansdale fans will buy the first edition anyway, but the rest of you might pause before buying. The early Hap & Leonard novels are wonderful. If you haven’t already read them, start with Mucho Mojo.

Here are reviews of the last two Hap & Leonard novels: Vanilla Ride and Devil Red. There are also two standalones: Edge of Dark Water and The Thicket.

For those of you who don’t immediately go on to read the comments to these reviews, I have imported the following from the Master himself,

“Just for the record, I insisted the story be included so no one would mistake this for a novel, or hoped they wouldn’t. As to the quality, that is of course the reader’s judgement, but I didn’t want that put on Subterranean Press. That was my idea, and not for the reason you give.”

So now we know. Thanks for that clarification and apologies for any confusion to the folk at Subterranean Press.

Devil Red by Joe R Lansdale

The thing about chalk and cheese is that, if you get cheese that’s neither too soft nor too hard, you can use both substances to write on one of those old school blackboards. Now I know you’re thinking the cheese is just going to leave a greasy track like a snail who’s developed diarrhoea after eating a fatty beef patty but, in the right light, you’ll still be able to read what you wrote. Perhaps if you used Edam and left some of the paraffin wax protection on, there would be red streaks to show you the way. Never forget both chalk and cheese are useful in their own way. Until one of them gets shot, of course.

There’s this thing about Hap & Leonard novels as assembled by Joe R Lansdale. These guys come as a pair. Well, that’s perhaps not quite the right thing to say since only one of them is gay and they don’t sleep together in that way, if you get my meaning. But, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, “You can’t have one without the other”. It’s like they’re apples and oranges but both fruit. . . No, that doesn’t work well either.

Anyway, Devil Red starts in the usual way with Hap Collins and Leonard Pine debating with each other. The easiest way of understanding these existential discussions is to focus on the essentials. Neither of them has any real sense, yet they’re the most reliable men you could ever hope to meet if your back was to the wall and the wall was thinking of running out on you. They’re the nicest, most gentle and understanding of ruthless men you could ask for in a jam. In this case, they’ve gone to a part of town where even the mice belong to a gang for protection. They’re not wearing a hat and tie (mice don’t usually do that, anyway). Dressed for action not fashion, Marvin and his little old lady client have sent them to break a few bones. It’s a routine job and they’re just the kinda guys to get it done. Except Hap’s got a little PTSD after his shoot-out with Vanilla Ride and the accumulation of all the dead bodies he seems to leave in his wake (that’s the shipping metaphor not the funeral joke). His hands are shaking, he feels ethically challenged, and his reaction time’s sluggish. Even beating on two worthless human beings doesn’t improve his mood.

But once Marvin picks up a rich client who wants a double-homicide investigating, things start to move along fast enough for Hap to loosen up and get back into the swing of things (and not just with a baseball bat). With Leonard a fan of Sherlock Holmes and now inclined to wear a deerstalker hat whenever the game’s afoot (which is actually Shakespeare rather than Conan Doyle, but no-one cares about such trivial details today), they start beating the grass and rattling the bars of as many cages as they can find, hoping someone will give them a clue on whodunnit.

Joe Lansdale reminds himself how good Devil Red is.

Sadly, this does provoke a shooting but, because Leonard has to come back for the next outing in the series, what with there being no-one in prospect for a Hap & Son sequel, Lansdale has our indefatigable sleuth hooked up to life-support in an ICU until he manages a smile at the end. Of course, shooting Leonard is not something up with which Hap will put. He’s now properly motivated to cut to the chase and find lots of people to kill. There’s just one problem. He doesn’t know who to start shooting. Fortunately, a blast from the past is able to point him in the right direction and vengeance, Texas style, is laid out on the BBQ with plenty of hot chili sauce.

This is Joe Lansdale maintaining the fine run of form he started in Vanilla Ride, producing a genuinely amusing riff on the usually stolid PI tropes. Our two heroes, with a little help from girl-friend and newspaper contacts, crack the case and some heads in their search for the truth, justice and the Texan way. Many die or are wounded on the way, but this has always been the price of admission to a Hap & Leonard novel. Devil Red is definitely worth seeking out and reading.

Here are reviews of the last Hap & Leonard novel, Vanilla Ride a novella Hyenas and two free-standing novels: Edge of Dark Water and The Thicket.

Vanilla Ride by Joe R. Lansdale

Humour is one of the more difficult-to-define human reactions. What we may find amusing is influenced by the prevailing culture, the extent to which the situations depicted match our own experiences, and so on. What I can say is that television writers’ attempts to produce common denominator humour for the mass market have largely left me cold. None of the series explicitly billed as “funny” have raised even the faintest of smiles from me. I long ago gave up watching them. This, of course, raises the question of whether any television makes me laugh out loud. The answer is somewhat strange. This week, I have been vastly amused by episodes of “CSI” and “Burn Notice”, both of which in slightly different ways, deal with violence and death. Yet they and other dramatic shows use humour in the traditional way. For example, in the Scottish play (sparing those of you who think it bad luck to speak, write or read the Mac word), we have the scene with the Porter which, by breaking the mood, raises the tempo of tragedy when the murder is discovered. So I find situations or the comments they inspire amusing when they take an unexpected turn. Irony and the absurd make me laugh.

My reading of Lansdale has been on and off over the last thirty years or so. When I first found him back in the early 1980s, I was bowled over. He had a voice I could read for hours. With the 1990s came the Hap and Leonard novels and my joy was complete. But a combination of factors slowly turned me off. He became the primary author for Subterranean Press and, for their mutual profit, the majority of books emerged as more expensive limited editions. This works for a while so long as the quality of the fiction remains high. But with the launch of The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent we began to plumb the underbelly of Lansdale’s published works. No matter how good The Bottoms or A Fine Dark Line, I lost interest. Captains Outrageous had seemed a poor outing for Hap and Leonard. Zeppelins West was, not to put too fine a point on it, just plain silly. I stopped buying.

Yet, it was fond memories of the early Hap and Leonards that tempted me back and, fortunately, Vanilla Ride has proved one of the more amusing books of the last year or so. This is Hap and Leonard meet Sergio Leone in a Spaghetti Western shootout. As with many books of this type, it’s the journey itself that matters rather than the scenery that flashes by on the way. Our two heroes must start at the beginning and arrive at the end relatively unscathed so they can re-emerge in another book. While this removes some level of tension from the central narrative, the monotony of their victories is leavened by the number of bodies left behind. As in Schwarzenegger films like Commando, the invincibility of the heroes is so absurd, it becomes amusing in its own right. We merely wait to see how the author will rescue the deus from the machina. Wrap in the banter between the characters and you have a genuinely entertaining read. It’s not going to impress you as great literature but, having no pretensions to being anything other than the latest Hap and Leonard outing, it’s one of the best of its type and well worth the price of admission.

Here are reviews of the next Hap & Leonard novel, Devil Red, a novella Hyenas and two free-standing novels: Edge of Dark Water and The Thicket.

Secret Histories: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson

There is, I think, a misconception among publishers that the so-called young adult market requires a significantly different way of writing. At one level, those who specialise in childhood development try to impress us with studies of vocabulary growth along an age profile. Children know this number of words at different ages. Their ability to comprehend complexity in sentences develops at this age. This is bringing the appearance of science to bear for educational purposes, indicating aspirational norms for each cohort moving through the schooling system. Different forms of test are then used to measure the extent to which language and comprehension skills are being developed.

Frankly, I have no time for this. Average numbers for words held in vocabulary fail to reflect the actual distribution of results. Many children have vast numbers of words at their disposal. Others lack the environmental stimuli to develop a comparable resource. By imposing targets on the education service and then testing students against those targets, you are dumbing down. Instead of challenging children to learn ever more words with new and stimulating lesson plans, you expect no more than these core words at the given age (remembering, of course, that every age is spread over a twelve month period).

As a marketing genre, I suppose it is convenient to package some books as being suitable for children to read because of their content. Nanny publishers make value judgements based on the prevailing cultural norms and decide that children should be protected from some themes. Except that, when you review what is currently shown on television as suitable for children, you find it is often dark and violent with all kinds of interesting sexual subtexts in play. Then through the lack of parental supervision or as a response to peer pressure and natural curiosity, children gain access to “adult” content through libraries, VCDs, DVDs and the internet.

I find the idea of “young adult” patronising. Children develop at their own pace. If the content is sufficiently interesting, they will be motivated to read. If the vocabulary occasionally stretches them, that is good because it is teaching them new words. Let us take nothing away from the authors who write the best of what appears under this label. Within the limits laid down by the commissioning editors and marketing departments, most do a magnificent job. There is some excellent literature out there that just happens to be packaged in a strange way. In fact, this labelling is often counterproductive because many adult (and some child) readers harbour a prejudice that anything classified as “for children” must be beneath their interest. Yet marketing departments continue to build their dedicated imprints, probably hoping that, in due course, these readers can be weaned on to genres with more adult sensibilities. This is somewhat ironic because, if they are already readers, they should be reading anything that looks interesting rather than something packaged by genre.

All of which brings me to Secret Histories: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson (Gauntlet Press, 2008). As a fan of Wilson’s writing, I was interested to see some of Jack’s backstory. One of the principal fascinations of reading is to explore the author’s vision for the main characters. Repairman Jack has been a stalwart for eleven books. Now we get to see him as a child. Appropriately, Jack is growing up in the Barrens so we remain firmly in the more general mythology underpinning The Adversary Cycle. But Wilson (and the publisher Gauntlet Publications) have decided to label the book as “young adult”. I think I shall probably excuse Gauntlet as an innocent bystander in this decision. It is more likely that Wilson’s eye is more firmly on breaking into the growing YA paperback market, hoping for crossover sales into the full Repairman Jack series and Adversary Cycle.

The nearest model I can come to as a perfect approach is The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale. This is a magnificent piece of writing that looks very firmly at adult issues through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy and his younger sister. It won the Edgar Award for best novel. If any proof was needed that you can write an adult book from the pont-of-view of a child, this is it. Yet, Wilson has decided to pull his punches just enough to creep under what he perceives the bar to be for entry into the YA category.

Frankly, I think this was a mistake. The style is self-conscious. One of Wilson’s consistent virtues as a writer is that his prose is very simple and direct. It sucks a reader in and bustles along at a steady clip. He makes it look so easy. Except in this case when he is consciously trying to make the writing simple and direct. More worryingly, there is a sense of editorialising at several points where self-imposed language constraints and plotting decisions lead to pallid results. All the cast of characters that you would expect does put in an appearance, but it all lacks the genuine feel. This all feels like Jack as a very weedy beanstalk. If only Wilson had created a Lansdale masterpiece to add to the Repairman Jack canon. As it is, it looks as though we have two more books to go to get Jack all growed up. The only thing I can find to say is excellent about this book is that it is mercifully short. YA’s attention spans are short, you see.

This probably for the die-hard fans who want to delve into the “origins” story.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

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