THE THICKET by Joe R. Lansdale

Mulholland Books
Publication date: September 10th, 2013

Fans of Joe R. Lansdale know what to expect whenever they crack the spine of one of his books. They know that they will have no idea what to expect. Being a master of suspense, crime, supernatural thrillers, westerns, and any number of mashups of any of those genres, a Lansdale story is unlike anything else on the shelf. And if this is starting to sound like a fanboy rave review, that’s because it is.

Lansdale has had his hooks in my brain since I stumbled on a copy of THE NIGHTRUNNERS while browsing the stacks at the local Shinders newsstand while on break at work during the mid ‘90’s. I’d never read anything like it. This led me to grab anything I could find by the man from Nacogdoches, Texas. The Hap and Leonard books. The two Jonah Hex miniseries from DC/Vertigo. The list goes on and on.

Which of course, brings us to THE THICKET. Lansdale brings us a straightforward tale set during the twilight of the Old West. As trees are being replaced by oil derricks, and horses are about to be replaced by cars, young Jack Parker’s parents are killed by plague, then his grandfather is murdered by bank robbers. Cut Throat Bill, the leader of the band of killers who shot Jack’s grandfather, takes a shine to Jack’s sister Lula. Cut Throat makes off with Lula, and Jack’s story truly begins.

What could easily have been a search-and-rescue-adventure-type story is quickly turned on its head. Young Jack’s guides through the wilds of East Texas may be the hard men you’d expect from a Wild West story, but in Lansdale’s hands, we get heroes of a different sort.

Shorty: A dwarf who happens to be a stargazing ex-circus performer.

Eustace: A black man who digs graves and carries a very large gun.

Hog: A…hog. Yes, the third member of this trio is a smelly wild boar. He’s not Eustace’s pet. Hog goes where he chooses. He just likes hanging out with Eustace and Shorty.

Quirks are a hallmark of Lansdale’s writing. But while a lesser writer would let their story be derailed by the quirks, Lansdale uses the quirks to add seasoning to the story progression. Not once during this tale does the reader not feel the worry Jack feels for his kidnapped sister. Not once is the reader not faced with the reality that Lula is facing the possibility of rape and/or disfigurement at the hands of the bandits. The sly humor sprinkled throughout just serves to make the frightening reality of Jack’s quest all the grimmer.

In our house, you can gauge how much Red and I enjoy a book by how much of it we read aloud to each other. By how “tasty” the dialog is. The COLLECTOR SERIES by Chris F. Holm and THE HARD BOUCE by Todd Robinson are great examples of these phenomena. When the dialog rings true, when you almost forget you’re reading a fictional story and the characters start sounding real because what they are saying is exactly what that character would say in that situation, it begs to be read aloud. Needless to say, Kate got a free audio book version of THE THICKET, performed by me, whether she wanted it or not.

Side note: Her response was this “Shut up, already! I’ll read it myself!”

As Jack and his motley crew of rescuers chase Cut Throat Bill and his band of villains across the wilds of Texas, Jack has his young morals and convictions put to the test. How well do his “civilized” ideas about the sanctity of life hold up against the stark reality of life in the wild? Just how far is he willing to go to rescue his only sister?

Many things are learned when Joe R. Lansdale takes us deep into THE THICKET. Mysteries about life. Mysteries about growing up. Mysteries about what it takes to grow and change in the shadow of the new century to come.

 

Dan Malmon