There's something about a carnival that makes for a good story. Too bad that didn't work the other way around with equal effect. Some carnivals and sideshows are just awful. And the one imagined by Joe Lansdale in this novel sounds like it'd be kind of awful if I were to actually visit it. Fortunately, in the confines of this novel it was a real treat.
It takes a few chapters to get to the carnival, though. Before that, Lansdale introduces Bill as the protagonist. In just about any other story Bill would be the heel of the tale. He's an unintelligent, willfully ignorant, deceitful thief. His mother is dead and rotting up in her bedroom, and he hasn't bothered to inform anyone since the house isn't willed to him. And even though he'd like to forge her signature on the checks that keep coming in the mail, he's too devoid of talent to do it--and lacks the will to even try.
He does, however, get it into his head that he can make some money by robbing the fireworks stand across the road. And he really needs some money because he's down to eating the canned beats in the cupboard of a powerless house. But Bill and his two cronies foul things up and winds up on the run, presumably a fugitive from the law. That is a bit of a tale all its own that you'll have to read for yourself. It's when he stumbles upon a freak show carnival in east Texas, tired and lost and his face deformed by insect bites, that his luck seems to turn around a little bit. His luck isn't all the way turned around, mind you, as the cast of characters he meets all have their own story and Bill manages to get mixed up in all of their inner dealings too.
This was my first Lansdale novel and, boy, did I pick a wild one. The writing is a gritty, straight-forward kind of style peppered with slang and colloquialisms, some of them some real eye-catchers. I feel pretty safe in saying that this book offered the first occasion for me to see the words "stinky on his dinky." Ever. And it was reading so much of the story from Bill's point of view, as well as the entertaining dialogue, that really made this book stand out for me.
The ending felt a bit like a letdown, but that's simply because it didn't go in a direction I expected it to. That's fine, but after such a slow buildup through the novel, I kind of expected a bigger payoff. Not a Hollywood, guns-a-blazin' style ending, but something that would've let me close the book and let out a sigh of satisfaction. But, heck, it was still a fun ride and I am definitely on the hunt for more Lansdale novels to read.
If Lansdale fans have any suggestions, whether a Hap/Leonard novel or some short fiction, I'm all ears.