REVIEW SUMMARY: Utilizing the East Texas setting he knows so well, Lansdale repeats the master storytelling displayed in one of my all-time faves, The Bottoms, with this genre-bending tale of escape and hope. Lansdale integrates pieces of Homer, Mark Twain and other influences, but it is his ability to make the characters, the setting and extraordinary circumstances come to life that makes this a great read.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Almost an adult, Sue Ellen is trapped in East Texas with an abusive stepfather and a mother who lives in a drunken haze. A friend’s murder and the discovery of her hidden stash of cash set Sue Ellen and her friends, Terry and Jinx, on an escape down-river, trying to leave their past and running from people and legendary killers who would take their new found cash, their freedom and their lives.
PROS: Lots of people know how to write a book, Lansdale knows how to tell a story. The characters, the setting, the prejudices of the time period and the legendary “do they really exist” killers all flow together into a can’t-put-it-down tale.
CONS: Strikingly similar to The Bottoms — not necessarily a con, but some scenes seemed familiar.
BOTTOM LINE: Lansdale often gets classified as a “Horror Author” and that kept me away from his stories for a long time. But his writing flows so well, it’s like we’re sitting drinking tequila swapping tales…with him always winning the storytelling contest. Edge of Dark Water is difficult book to confine into a single genre (the best kind!) but it’s an enjoyable read, ranking close to The Bottoms as Lansdale’s best.
The Bottoms, Joe Lansdale’s Edgar Award winning novel from 2000, is one of my favorite stories of all time. The East Texas setting, the Depression era time period, the characterizations, the prejudice…all flowed together into exactly what a novel should be…a story told by a master storyteller in a way that sounds like he’s sitting right across from you. These pieces made the “horror” aspect of a traveling serial killer blend right in to the background, making it just another part of the story.
Lansdale’s latest, Edge of Dark Water, has a lot of the same characteristics as The Bottoms. The setting of East Texas near the Sabine River is similar, and some of the scenes (escaping through the thorns and brambles, for example) seemed familiar. It’s is told from the perspective of Sue Ellen, a teenager, almost a woman, who lives an edge-of-poverty existence dodging her drunken step-father’s roving hands. Her mother is hooked on a cure-all that keeps her in a dazed stupor. Sue Ellen’s release are her friends: Terry, a well-schooled young man most suspect of being a “sissy” with stepfather issues of his own; Jinx, a black girl with good parents whose father travels north frequently to get a good paying job; and May Lynn, a beautiful young lady who dreams of going to Hollywood. When they pull May Lynn’s body out of the river while fishing (found with a sewing machine tied to her legs to hold her down), Sue Ellen’s world changes, and changes quickly. Terry wants to take May Lynn’s ashes and spread them over Hollywood. And when they stumble upon a map of May Lynn’s which leads to a stash of cash apparently stolen by her larcenous brother (now deceased), they have the means to not only escape the lives they currently detest, but honor May Lynn as well.
Lansdale is at his best when describing atypical situations with conversational language, such as the finding of a friend’s body, an occasion rarely encountered and hard to describe. Lansdale uses it as an opportunity to blend the event with character and setting.
I sat on the shore and looked at May Lynn’s body. It was gathering flies and starting to smell and all I could think of was how she was always clean and pretty, and this wasn’t a thing that should have happened to her. It wasn’t like in the books I had read, and the times I had been to the picture show and people died. They always looked pretty much like they were when they were alive, except sleepy. I saw now that’s not how things were. It wasn’t any different for a dead person than a shot-dead squirrel or a hog with a cut throat hanging over the scalding pot.
Lansdale’s stories always have some strange situations in them, which he come across as everyday events. Here, Sue Ellen is making the decision to move forward with their plan:
I figure when you got right down to it, we weren’t fresh thieves after all, but had had plenty of practice in the cane fields and watermelon patches. Heck, I had started my life of crime sometime back, but had just then realized it. The natural move forward would be to take stolen bank money and spend it on a trip to Hollywood with a dead girl burnt up in a jar.
But soon everyone knows about the “stolen bank money” and Sue Ellen and friends, joined by their suddenly concerned mother, are pursued by the local constable, a nasty Uncle, and the legendary killer and tracker named “Skunk”, hired by May Lynn’s drunken father to get the money back. The group uses a raft on the Sabine River ala Mark Twain to make their initial escape. The Mark Twain Mississippi imagery is transferred to the muddy Sabine, where they pole their raft along, alluding pursuers. Their odyssey takes a Homer-esque turn, with a Sunday church choir dressed in white playing the role of the Sirens, lulling Sue Ellen and co into a sense of security.
Lansdale’s characterizations are colorful and spot-on: Jinx, a strong-willed black girl, tired of the prejudice, trying to escape a hard fate for anything else; Terry, the “sissy” boy, taking on the Lansdale “Hap and Leonard” type role, a gay man trying to fit in, this time translated back in time dealing with prejudices of his own; even Skunk, the killer (though we rarely see him) is brought out in legend and description (ellipsis in the quote added by me to hide any spoilers):
He was big and stout and was carrying the cane knife. He had on that derby and his hair was all coiled out from under it, twisted up and full of pine needles and leaves and dirt and such; that bird was there, too, dangling. […] He had a necklace made out of the hands he had recently chopped off,[…] all of them had a strand of leather run through them, and they flapped against his chest as he run, like they was birds attacking him.
My only wishes for the story would have been seeing more of Skunk. While part of the attraction and the suspense were that there were only glimpses of this legendary killer, he was a colorful character, and more physical encounters with him (and a longer final encounter) would have been enjoyable.
Obvious comparisons can be drawn to Lansdale’s The Bottoms, which had a similar setting, a traveling serial killer instead of Skunk. But The Bottoms was a coming-of-age story of a young man; this is a story of escape, told from the perspective of a young woman.
I highly recommend both novels, great tales told very well. The stories are as well put together and flow as evenly as one of Master Lansdale’s round house kicks.