September 20, 2013

White Hats, Wild Hogs, and Other Texas Myths: a review of Joe R. Lansdale's "The Thicket"

The Thicket
by Joe R. Lansdale
Mulholland Books (2013)
288 pages

It didn't take long for Joe Lansdale to become one of my favorite writers, after first reading his work just a few years ago. And while I haven't read all his books yet, by gawd I'm trying. From what I have read, I've noticed the man has a way of turning Texas into a near mythical place. Heck, maybe Texas is mythical and Lansdale is just passing word along. Whatever the case, his latest novel, The Thicket, presents an early-1900s East Texas as a land burgeoning into the modern age, with vestiges of the wild west all too present while harbingers of our modern times creeping into the landscape. One thing that seems to last forever is a thirst for justice.

Jack Parker, the narrator of this story, recounts a chapter of his youth following the death of his parents as smallpox ravaged the countryside. He, in his mid-teens at the time, and his younger sister, Lula, wind up in the care of their grandfather who aims to take them to Virginia where they'll be raised by their aunt. But while crossing a river aboard a ferry, Jack's grandfather is shot by a murderous outlaw Jack comes to know as Cutthroat Bill. Before Bill and his cohorts can turn their guns on the two young ones, a twister capsizes the ferry, placing Jack on one side of the river and his sister and Cutthroat Bill on the other. From there, Jack begins an odyssey to rescue his sister and bring his grandfather's killer to justice.

"Odyssey" seems like a good word too, as Jack's trek across Texas felt like a blend of True Grit and The Wizard of Oz. Charlie Portis' True Grit in the sense that it's a youth recruiting adults to chase an outlaw. L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz in the sense that the journey feels almost other-worldly as Jack employs and ultimately befriends a ragtag bunch that includes a couple of cantankerous bounty hunters, an enterprising prostitute, and even a large hog that may be the most formidable member of the posse, only instead of a wicked witch tailing them, they're tailing a wicked man.

What starts out as a coming-of-age revenge tale evolves as Jack's story progresses. If it had been kept to the matter-of-fact pursuit of a murderer, I would have still been on board, but Lansdale goes the extra mile in offering a conflicted young man who has trouble reconciling his rigid sense of right and wrong, instilled by his upbringing, and a growing thirst for revenge. There's this wonderful parallel set up between Jack's awkward steps into adulthood and that of the twentieth century's encroachment on the outskirts of Texas. Jack's world is eroding, his moral compass and reverence for his elders challenged, while the backdrop shows horses make way for new contraptions called automobiles, and talk of oil seems as much the talk of magic.

Another of Lansdale's specialties comes to bear, with an expert balance of humor and horror, as Jack and his motley crew share mirthful and witty exchanges, then find themselves contending with the more vicious and unforgiving aspects of the wild west. The brutality in some scenes really makes you appreciate the humor in others. And sometimes it all happens at once, as evidenced by that unpredictable Hog and his eating habits. Such is life, whether old or modern, I suppose.

On a side-note, this is the third book published by Mulholland Books that I've read this year, and all three have been notably diverse in tone, theme, and style (Duane Swierczynski's Point and Shoot and Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls being the other two). Crime is a big tent genre and it's reassuring to see they've made room for eclectic gems like The Thicket.


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