February 8, 2013

Mad for More: a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "Mad Dog Summer"

Mad Dog Summer
by Joe R. Lansdale
originally published in 1999
ASIN: B008K6YIMC
Available also through Amazon.com

It can get hot up in here in Canada during the summer--at least by Canadian standards--but I can't imagine the insufferable eff-off heat that hits Texas. I mean, you get into July and August, Hell's asshole must seem like a mild oasis by comparison. Anyway, it's a heatwave that sets the stakes for this story in Depression-era east Texas, as a young boy and his little sister discover a dead black woman down by the river and fear the fabled Goat Man might be responsible.

A young boy, twelve or so, recounts the family hunting dog, Toby, getting lamed up with a broken back. He and his sister, Tom, are tasked with taking the poor fella out in the woods to put him down. The dog miraculously shows more vitality than any cripple dog should, sniffing out squirrels and in its own way convincing the two kids to truck it around from tree to tree in the wheelbarrow--until they're too deep in the woods to know where they're at. That's about when they come across the dead woman and get a sense they're being watched. From there, the summer is spent as a slowly unwinding mystery as to who could have done such a thing, and racial tensions and long-held prejudices rear up to torment the boy and his whole family. And that killer is in the shadows just waiting for a chance to take another victim.

I think I loved this story so much on account of growing up with a forest for a backyard, and remembering those days me and my own little sister used to go gallivanting through the woods with our dog. We'd go through two in those formative years, Digger (a rabbit hound that would chase rabbits until its legs would almost give out on it) and Barkley (a Heinz 57 blend of breeds that stuck to our heels closer than Digger, but still loved to roam). There's a magic out in those woods when you're young and away from anything remotely resembling a big city, much like east Texas I suspect. Serial killers don't exist here. They're an out-there problem. So, after reading a story like this, I can appreciate the relative uneventfulness than was my childhood as compared to the narrator.

The nostalgia factor of Mad Dog Summer was also a welcome come-down after the wrenching short story that preceded it, "The Shadows, Kith and Kin." That's an ill-tempered story if ever there was one.

Hap & Leonard it is not, but I think this would be a really good story for readers looking for mystery, or history, and a few things in-between.

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