Monday, September 16, 2013

Joe Landsdale's Novel, The Thicket - Review

Okay, so it's Lonesome Dove meets A Game of Thrones ...

Well, no, not really, even though if you've read those, you'll understand why I said that. It's more like ... um, actually, it's not more like anything. Nobody writes quite like Joe Lansdale, and The Thicket isn't anything else, the similes and metaphors kinda don't apply.

Let me give you a quick hit as to the plot: After their parents die from smallpox, a teenaged brother and sister see their grandfather murdered, get caught in a tornado while crossing a river on a ferry, and the sister is kidnapped by bad fellows. Her brother goes after her, and along the way, picks up a crew that includes a black alcoholic gravedigger and bounty hunter; his best buddy, a well-read and off-handedly cruel dwarf, also a bounty hunter; a prostitute, a sheriff-cum-bounty hunter with his own storied history; a jail cleaner named "Spot," and a large, quick-tempered hog. Those are the good guys, and just barely so.

Ever read that one before? 

Me, neither.

Lansdale fans know what to expect when they pick up any of his work, and the ride is always worth the price of admission and then some. Nobody does this kind of thing like Lansdale does, and if they did? he'd still do it better.

Man can write circles around most of us, and that is a fact.

It's funny, but also brutal, populated by robbers, murders, and rapists, and all of that happens along the way in some gruesome detail. I'd rate it a fairly hard R, for language, violence, and sex. It is, in places ugly, not a book for anybody with a queasy stomach.

I have one niggle with Lansdale's writing, and that is, he is loath to reveal the specific historical time a story happens. He did it in The Edge of Dark Water and he does it again here.

A quick lesson from the how-to-write department as I learned it: The defaults when one picks up a novel are, that unless there is a big clue on the cover or blurb, showing a scene from some  historical past, a fantasy world, or rockets and ray guns, hinting that we are maybe skying off into the future, the time and setting of the book are now, and somewhere on Earth.

That's what readers will assume, that the tale is contemporaneous with the present. If it's different, you have to tell them. 

East Texas is on Earth, more or less, and the setting and characters pop right up, but the when of things arrives in small doses. People are riding horses, mostly, or in wagons behind mules, so you figure it is in the past, but that covers a lot of territory. 

It seems that making the reader figure out the era is part of Joe's intent. He gives clues, and if you are a history buff or close to Google, you can figure it out, if you can suss the fact from fiction and look up the pertinent information. 

I kinda like such exercises, but I'm not your usual reader. The simple solution is a tag under the opening chapter's number:

East Texas, 1913

Joe doesn't go there and I have to assume that's on purpose. I don't know why.

There's nothing a reader is apt to spot in the first 18 pp that tells you within  a hundred years when the story is taking place. 

19 pp in, a bad guy is observed carrying one of those newer automatic pistols, no brand mentioned, and that that back-ends the earliest possible time to the late 1890's, though it would have almost surely been later, since practical semi-auto pistols didn't show up in this country until after the turn of the century. There were Broomhandle Mausers, but the Colt 1911 wasn't adopted by the military until, well, 1911 ...

A character mentions a Nick Carter story, (p 70) and those ran from the mid-1860's to 1915, (then were restarted in the 1930's,) so that's not really much help.

There are some of them newfangled horseless carriages (p 74) and early oil wells. In Texas,  the earliest locally-owned automobile showed up in 1902. The first oil well gushed in 1901. (Autos stayed close to home until years later, because finding gasoline was not easy, even in Texas where the oil came from. Somebody had to make the stuff.)

There comes a reference to a vaudeville act, the Marx Brothers, and if that's who it ought to be, that narrows things: The speaker allows as how he had seen them a year back, and they were singers, the Marx Brothers, but not so good at it; however, they told some jokes that were passing funny. According to the history about this, the Marx Brothers didn't start doing comedy in their song-and-dance act until 1912, which puts the story a year later, minimum, as the new back end cut-off. So now, we are no earlier than 1913.

I didn't see any mention of WWI, which started in 1914 and into which the U.S. entered in 1917, and had the war begun, I would have assumed it to be a topic of conversation. If I had to nail it down, I'd guess the novel is set in 1913 or 1914, before the Great War began. The archduke wasn't assassinated until June 28th. 

Is it necessary to know this to enjoy the story? No. It's just that knowing the five-W's and the aitch–who, where, what, when, why, and how–make for a richer experience, so I took the trouble to figure it out ...


William Adams said...

Didn't early automobile travelers depend upon:

- gasoline sold in glass bottles as a cleaning fluid from drug stores
- gasoline sold by farm supply stores as fuel for farm equipment?

There was an old news story, oft-repeated in the context of gun safety of a U.S. police officer whose pistol is taken by a bad guy, but isn't shot since it was a European? semi-automatic (Browning M1899 (or 1900?)) which argues for an earlier date.

Steve Perry said...

As I understand it, the primary commercial use for petroleum circa 1900 was kerosene, and that's mostly where it went. I suspect drug stores in east Texas stocking gasoline before 1900 were few and far between.

If the first automobile owned in Texas wasn't until 1902 and we see 'em in this book, that argues for post 1902.

That semi-auto pistols existed is true, but that it would be likely to see them stuck into the belts of bad guys in Texas before the early 1900's would be a reach, especially sense the VP character who noticed them was a sixteen-year-old boy from way back in the woods.How would he have known what it was, were they not more common?

I'm not sure of that old pistol story, and if a police officer owned an 1899 or 1900 anything, it would have been after those days, no ... ?

Steve Perry said...

"since," not "sense ..."

William Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Adams said...

Poor wording on my part. Perhaps, ``makes possible an earlier date and confirms your conclusion.''?