Make no mistake about it: I am an unabashed Joe R. Lansdale fan. His books speak to me in an accent I recognize and he tells a mighty fine story. A new Lansdale book is a cause for celebration and I eagerly await its arrival on my doorstep.
Lansdale's recent work All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky and Edge of Dark Water has seemed deeper and richer than earlier work. He's always been a crackerjack storyteller but his descriptive skills and characterization skills keep getting better. East Texas belongs to Lansdale the way the Mississippi River belongs to Twain, and he takes the same delight in creating outrageous characters and telling stories with more than a whiff of the tall tale about them.
If Edge of Dark Water's wild ride down the Sabine River was Lansdale bouncing off of Huckleberry Finn, then The Thicket is Lansdale playing with True Grit: a stubborn hooks up with disreputable partners to right a wrong.
The narrator of The Thicket is 16-year old naif Jack Parker, whose parents have just died, leaving he and his disconnected sister Lula in the care of their harsh grandfather. He determines to send them off to a far away aunt, but on the way they run up against bad guys who run off with his sister. Determined to get Lula back, Jack hires a couple of bounty hunters: Eustace Cox, who carries a giant shotgun and whose constant companion is a feral hog (named Hog), and Shorty, a highly intelligent dwarf. Adventure ensues, some violent and some amusing, as Jack is forced to grow up.
This is a Lansdale book, which means there are no punches pulled: terrible things happen, bad people do bad things, good people are hurt and killed. The bad guys are pretty rotten, but the good guys are no angels. Race relations are exactly what you would expect in early oil boom East Texas, and having a large shotgun and a feral hog for a friend doesn't do much to mitigate that. The violence is ever-present, both for the good guys and the bad guys, but Lansdale doesn't shy away from showing the cost of it.
Fortunately, Lansdale's sense of humor is also on prominent display, as is his skill at creating memorable characters. Shorty and Eustace (and Hog, of course) are unforgettable: blunt, sad, funny, troubled, and practical. Jack's growing pains are on full display as he learns that justice sometimes carries a high cost and as some cherished childhood notions of right and wrong run up against reality. Even Lula, who spends most of the book offscreen and appears almost entirely in Jack's memories, makes an impression.
Fans of Westerns, crime stories, coming of age stories and tales of heroes in unusual packages will be fans of this book. Pull up a chair and spend some time on Lansdale's porch letting the voice of a master paint you an unforgettable picture.
Buy The Thicket right here and follow on the Twitter @joelansdale.