Dear Bobby, Yesterday my new Captain Miller, ordered me to go with the new
FLANDERS, Patricia Anthony's Lost Novel of WWI
April 2, France, Reserve Area
Dear Bobby, Yesterday my new Captain Miller, ordered me to go with the new subaltern...After an hour's pleasant stroll, we came upon what looked like a crude bar ditch, with a few soldiers lining one side and peering off across an orchard.
Right then the lieutenant throws himself down, yelling, "Four in! Four in!" The Tommies lining the ditch begin to shout "Hed doon.!" And then I heard wasps buzzing.
The Lieutenant waved frantically. "Yer bloody ignorant Yank! Fritz is four in!"
I dived headfirst into the ditch. Soldiers and packs and curses were propelled every which way. When we got untangled, I saw that the lieutenant was ordering me to ready my rifle, which I did. There were only a few Boche and they were lurking about the trees in the apple orchard, plinking at us haphazardly. My first shot dropped one, an outcome which took me by utter surprise. I saw the helmet sail off the German boy's head. I saw him go down. Regret so overwhelmed me, I nearly vomited...
Early issue German Helmet, WWI
Can't you hear an old man telling Travis to stay home? I can. I can see a grizzled veteran of the American Civil War talking to him, telling him he can't know what war is, but the old man knows. He's seen the Elephant.
That old man has crossed fields into volleys of rifled musketry. He has seen the lines of men disappear in the enfilading fire of canister. Some say old men forget. This old man does not. But not even he can know what waits in Europe, how efficient man has made weapons. Not even the makers of the weapons know how quickly and precisely these new weapons can kill so well, so completely, to destroy a regular army in less than six months of war. But it will happen. And once more, once the truth comes out, the world will be shocked and amazed. In this war they will wonder what happened to a generation, simply gone, dead, forever absent.
All the generals, the adjutants, the staff, will follow tactics far outstripped by modern weapons. And they will not understand how that could happen. They never have. They never will. It's the men you know. They hesitated. They did not push the advantage. That's it isn't it? That is what the battle reports will say. That is what they always say. What they say when the dead are counted. It was a rum show, wasn't it? Oh, yes. A bad show.
I can hear him talking to Travis. I can tell Travis isn't listening. Can't you? You ask God if there's not something to stop it. Then you ask where is God? This old man is not the creation of Patricia Anthony, but mine. These images in what I have labeled the Prologue are all images that Anthony has stirred in me. Anthony and the men I have known like that old man whose voice I hear whispering in my ear, those few from the war to end all wars, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. I wonder if I will live to know more old men from wars not yet fought. But I doubt I will, for I am growing to be among the old. It may well be that men younger than me will one day tell me, "Old man, you do not understand."
Welcome to the war, Travis Lee Stanhope, faithful writer of letters to younger brother Bobby back home in Harper, Texas. You're a good boy to write home and let the folks know you're fine. Couldn't wait to get to the war, could you? Couldn't wait until Uncle Sam pointed his finger at you and said he wanted you. Well, Son. I guess you weren't the first. You won't be the last. Too afraid it will all be over before you get there, aren't you? But you could have waited. It's going to be a long war. Won't be too many apples on those trees too long.
Flanders after artillery bombardment--these orchards bear no apples
Funny, isn't it? That German boy you dropped. Yes, a boy. Just like you're a boy. Wouldn't be surprised if he was fresh off the farm just like you. Except, he don't wear the same uniform you do. Got that funny spiked helmet that you sailed off his head.
Well, son. You're good with that rifle. Those Brits will make a sniper out of you. You've got plenty of killing ahead of you. You remember old Nathan Bedford Forrest. Well he was right. War means fightin' and fightin' means killin'. I worry you don't have the stomach for it. I think you're figurin' it out pretty fast. But they're not gonna let you go home.
On August 4, 1914, the German Army invaded Belgium. The territory included the former country of Flanders. Generally known as Flanders Fields, the primary battles fought there were First and Second Ypres, and Passchendale. British and French forces rushed to repel the German invasion. Fighting in the area lasted almost to the end of the war in 1918. Over one million men died on these fields.
What happened here is commemorated by the well known poem by John McRae, "In Flanders Fields." It has stood the test of time in portraying the restlessness of the dead who lie under row after row of crosses and stars of David.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
Poppy Fields in Flanders, where they shall not sleep though these flowers grow
Yet for all critical acclaim achieved by Patricia Anthony, the book was a commercial failure. It tanked. If it had been theatre, the advances would have been "We bombed in New Haven."
Perhaps Patricia Anthony's novel Flanders was doomed from the beginning. Anthony had been known as a science fiction writer. Ace was her publisher. On a perfectly beautifully designed dust jacket, the ACE SCIENCE FICTION imprint was prominently displayed on the spine. Perhaps science fiction readers picked up copies of Flanders flipped through it, said, "Huh?" and put it back on the shelf. Readers of historical fiction do not make their selections from the science fiction shelves.
Ms. Anthony, in Flanders wrote a masterpiece of historical fiction concerning trench warfare in World War One. It is probably one of the most curious books on the shelves of my library. It is a first printing, first edition, and it is signed by Ms. Anthony. It is worth practically nothing to the book collector. For this remarkable novel never found a reading audience. But I consider it a treasure that was lost, that I found.
The strange thing is this. Anthony was hailed by critics as one of America's newest and strongest writers. Flanders was almost universally acclaimed. Critics most often compared it as a novel equal in power to All Quiet on the Western Front.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, January 3, 1947, Ms. Anthony spent several years in Brazil as an English teacher. Ms. Anthony was teaching creative writing at SMU in Texas when Flanders was published. I happened to catch her on The Today Show. It was a remarkable interview. Published in 1998, it was a NYTimes Notable Book. Critics praised it to the skies. But nobody read it. As a seller, it was a flop.
It is a sad thing when a book this good cannot find a readership. I can only chalk it up to pure damned bad marketing. Pat Barker was fortunate to have written the Regeneration novels in Great Britain published by a House that had the good sense to market it as it should have been.
The Book Report
This is an epistolary novel. It consists of letters written by Travis Lee Stanhope to his younger brother Bobby back home in Texas. One of the first ones is quoted above. Like many Americans, Travis Lee volunteered to fight with the British Army before America went "over there."
Travis Lee is no Texas cowboy. Nor is he a West Texas Cotton Farmer. He's educated. He was attending medical school. He could have avoided the fracas. But he volunteered to go. I guess that's one way to see Europe. In Travis' mind the war would be short, perhaps six months at the most.
Travis Lee finds France beautiful in the spring of 1916. Away from the trenches, it certainly is. However, Travis Lee finds a different world once he's on the front lines. It is Hell. It is madness. It is day after day of useless deaths.
Travis Lee's skill is as a marksman. He is a sharpshooter. In other words, he is a sniper. And he is very good at his work. But he doesn't like what his duties require him to do.
Sleep is a constant nightmare for Travis Lee. At night his dreams are filled with the faces of the men he has killed and his comrades with whom he served who have been slaughtered in senseless attacks through barbed wire into nests of entrenched machine guns. Anthony's description of his dreams are hallucinatory, swirling episodes of horror. Death is a pretty girl in a calico dress wandering through a cemetery.
That Anthony portrays death as a supernatural figure should not be considered unusual. Men on the field witnessed visions. The war created an entire mythology of folklore. It was a time when British forces could say that Angels hovered over them during the retreat from Mons in 1914 and it was completely accepted.
Even more bizarre were the outright fictions, such as the ghosts of the archers of Agincourt who put themselves between their modern brethren and loosed arrows into German troops. Mysterious arrows that left no wounds. That little gem was an outright fiction published in a magazine as "The Mysterious Bowmen," by Arthur Machen. You might remember him as the author of "The Great God Pan" and a number of other horror and fantasy stories.
No, Anthony did not merely insert a "ghost story" into Flanders as Ace promoters announced. Anthony, in my opinion had done her research. She could read The Great War and Modern Memory as easily as I can today. Paul Fussell wrote it in 1975. This is another layer of authenticity that Anthony produces within the pages of this book.
As in all wars, there are men with whom Travis Lee serves, who revel in the killing. Pierre Le Blanc, a mad French Canadian represents that category of soldier. Le Blanc is not content to kill the enemy but even civilians in nearby villages. But it is Stanhope who becomes the suspect because of his bouts of binge drinking when even he is unaware of his actions. But it's the drinking that helps him forget the faces of the men he's wiped from the face of the earth, the faces of his dead comrades.
When sober, Travis Lee recites Keats and Shelley for his Captain who loves poetry as well, but he is an officer despised for his Jewishness. Travis Lee is caught in a quagmire of war, incapable of escape until the last bullet is fired.
What of Patricia Anthony? Previously the author of six acclaimed science fiction novels, Anthony broke with Ace following Flanders. After three years at SMU she left her post to become a screenwriter. Although on several projects, not one has been greenlighted. Anthony completed an eighth novel in 2006. She hasn't found a publisher. Perhaps she feels her life did not turn out as she planned it.
Her science fiction novels were:
Cold Allies (1992) Brother Termite (1993) Conscience of the Beagle (1993) Happy Policeman (1994) Cradle of Splendor (1996) God's Fires (1997)
James Cameron bought the writes to "Brother Termite" in 2003. The project has never gotten off the ground. There was even a screen treatment written for Flanders with a "small" producer. Nope. Didn't happen.
Yet, When Anthony left science fiction behind with Flanders she didn't return to the genre. Greg Johnson who frequently reviews for the SF Site and The New York Review of Science Fiction wrote:
"The only connection to SF is the Ace Science Fiction imprint on the cover, and the author's previous work. Conventional publishing wisdom would suggest that what Anthony is doing here is the equivalent of career suicide. Science fiction readers, they would say, won't read Flanders because it isn't science fiction. Mainstream readers will stay away because the author has been identified with SF. The result would be a book that falls through the cracks, and fails to find an audience."
While this magnificent book fell through the cracks,I beg to differ with Greg Johnson. Anthony may have signed an agreement with ACE, Anthony didn't commit career suicide. Was she under contract to ACE, effectively barring her from seeking another publisher? I don't know. I've not found the answer to that question. Of some small note the subsequent publication of Flanders in paperback appeared under the Berkley imprint. Sales improved. However, sales never matched critical acclaim.
Now, Flanders is a print on demand item in the Berkley catalog. That's a shame. This is one of the best overlooked books of the 20th Century. Find it. Read it. You can pick up a first edition hardback with dust jacket for as little as $1.00. Send Ms. Anthony a letter thanking her. She might appreciate it. Flanders is a lost American classic. It is time it was found.
ADDENDUM: I am sad to report that Patricia Anthony died on August 2, 2013. This review was edited and updated for members of goodreads group "Around WWI" This group has been established in observance of the Centenary of World War One. Should you be interested in joining the group, simply e-mail me of your interest. I serve as a group moderator in the company of Kris Rabberman and Kalliope. Any of us can assist you in joining this group.
The appearance of this review marks something very new for me. That happens to be an acknowledgement that I have and do read poetry, though none of you who believe they know me would have ever thought it and those who do not know me should ever care one whit.
I believe that as a species we are frequently filled with pride. Because of that pride, one of our greatest fears, and I will claim that fear as my own, is that we are terribly concerned that we might reveal our ignorance at any given time.
Take poetry, for instance. It can be an obtuse thing at times. I have gone through life never having had an idea of what a poet meant in a work I found impenetrable. For me I believe it began with the great English poets. If we will admit it, the English have a far longer literary history than Americans do. Consequently the English, I've always believed, are capable of explicating their poetry without a glance through The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918
I first became impatient with Poetry in high school. That classic English poetry was filled with literary allusion that some of my teachers could not or would not for belief that poetry exists as a matter of magical form, caused my eyes to glaze over, the words beginning to blur into one another in a manner I would never be able to untangle.
Should you be among that group, as I have, who have avoided poetry out of sheer terror, let me advise you to take a deep breath, sigh if you must, and give poetry a chance. With sincere apologies to John Lennon, all I'm asking is give poetry a chance. You might find yourself surprised. Perhaps you might even find yourself being amazed. Damn. There's that Beatles hook again.
If I were able to persuade ONE reader to pick up and read One book of poetry, it would be Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser. I've returned to it four times and found a beauty of life, a delight in life, and the indomitable nature of people, many of whom we not only wonder if we've passed them without seeing them, or if honest, actually ignored them as we passed by on our own business more important to ourselves.
Ted Kooser has served as America's Poet Laureate for two hitches. This small volume of poetry was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2005.
Ted Kooser, born April, 25, 1939, Ames, Iowa
That's the face of a man you want to know. Once you've read him, you know he's the man you'd like to share a cup of coffee with, or a cold morning walk.
Critics, whom I will not detail here, almost uniformly describe Kooser as a master of metaphor. He also captures details of life in images so precise it is enough to make anyone instantly aware that most of us do not have that remarkable ability.
As metaphor, this entire little book brims with it. Some of it is not easily accepted. At its most basic premise, for this reader, we are all born with one foot in the grave. None of us is ever going to make it out of this alive. However, Kooser finds the delights among the very valley of the shadow of death into which we all descend, illustrating the dignity and courage of the human spirit.
Following are a few examples.
At the Cancer Clinic
She is being helped toward the open door that leads to the examining rooms by two young women I take to be her sisters. Each bends to the weight of an arm and steps with the straight, tough bearing of courage. At what must seem to be a great distance, a nurse holds the door, smiling and calling encouragement. How patient she is in the crisp white sails of her clothes. The sick woman peers from under her funny knit cap to watch each foot swing scuffing forward and take its turn under her weight. There is no restlessness or impatience or anger anywhere in sight. Grace fills the clean mold of this moment and all the shuffling magazines grow still.
In the Waiting Room
Consider that courage in the face of adversity.
You find them at flea markets and yard sales, old South Bends and Pfluegers, with fancy engraving, knurled knobs and pearl handles, spooled with the fraying line of long stories snarled into silence, not just exaggerated tales of walleyes, bass, and catfish, but of hardworking men who on Saturdays sought out the solace of lakes, who on weekdays at desks, or standing on ladders, or next to clattering machines played out their youth and strength waiting to set the hook, and then, in their sixties, felt the line go slack and reeled the years back empty. They are the ones that got away...
Vintage Casting Reels
Consider this reward for the lives of toil we live.
And, finally, though there is so much more to be found, pearl after pearl, jewel after jewel...
by Ted Kooser
Spinning up dust and cornshucks as it crossed the chalky, exhausted fields, it sucked up into its heart hot work, cold work, lunch buckets, good horses, bad horses, their names and the names of mules that were better or worse than the horses, then rattled the dented tin sides of the threshing machine, shook the manure spreader, cranked the tractor’s crank that broke the uncle’s arm, then swept on through the windbreak, taking the treehouse and dirty magazines, turning its fury on the barn where cows kicked over buckets and the gray cat sat for a squirt of thick milk in its whiskers, crossed the chicken pen, undid the hook, plucked a warm brown egg from the meanest hen, then turned toward the house, where threshers were having dinner, peeled back the roof and the kitchen ceiling, reached down and snatched up uncles and cousins, grandma, grandpa, parents and children one by one, held them like dolls, looked long and longingly into their faces, then set them back in their chairs with blue and white platters of chicken and ham and mashed potatoes still steaming before them, with boats of gravy and bowls of peas and three kinds of pie, and suddenly, with a sound like a sigh, drew up its crowded, roaring, dusty funnel, and there at its tip was the nib of a pen.
The nib of a pen
Consider how we could hold onto all those we have loved, and lost, those who have entered the valley of the shadow without the blessing of memory.
For some critics and some readers, the word accessible when attached to the name of a poet and the poet's work is a nasty word. It is anathema. If one must scratch one's head and not be befuddled upon finishing a poem, why, you're just not reading good poetry. So I've been told. For the elite, they have permission to leave the room and construct conundrums for however long they may live. I pity them the delights they will miss along the way.
So I wish for each of you who may come upon this review, perhaps this essay, the desire for poetry. There are miles and miles to go before you sleep.
This review is for a relatively new goodreads friend, Harper Curtis who "reads all kinds of books, especially poetry." My friend, you caused me to put up a poetry shelf in my goodreads library and are responsible for the review. I can hear you saying, "Gawd, I hope he got it right." To the music of language....more
We are about to embark on a great quest. That is to explore a world at war.
Of course we speak of World War I, which would come to be known as World War I. It is not only that we seek to explore that world and war, but to attempt to understand why it happened, what brought it about.
Not only should we seek to understand what brought it about we must be aware that we seek to do all these things regarding a world that existed one hundred years ago that went to war in 1914 and did not return to a state of uneasy peace until 1918. And in attempting to understand what surprised the world as the greatest conflagration the world to that point had ever witnessed, it becomes necessary to know what the world was like.
Who were the people who lived there. How did they live, what did they do. Nor can we begin to understand the hellish waterspout that sucked so many nations into the depths of seas tinged with blood without understanding that it was not merely a world of politics or property but a world of art, music, dance, and philosophy.
These are the conflicting aspects of culture that are inconsistent with the idea of war. The attempt to put these seemingly impossible inconsistencies together can bring about a great distubance of the human spirit that a world capable of music as beautiful as "The Rites of Spring," clashing with the quivering chords rising into a crescendo of horns that might sound the trumpets of doom, based on the writings of a man who died, mad, in an asylum, but whose philosophy was adopted by a nation as its theme, acknowledging the right, the need of exerting its power over whole nations out of a sense of nationalist fervor.
Such things are of the type that enter our dreams and become our nightmares as we sense the end of one world and the beginning of another. It is as though we are walking as somnambulists in a world unknown to us. For it is unknown to us. We must be capable of forgetting, unlearning the modern world of which we consider ourselves to be a part.
This is a journey that requires a guide. Just as Aligheri required a guide into the Inferno we must have our own Virgil. It is highly likely that we will find the need of a Beatrice for the war we will eventually explore was not a paradise, but a Hell as fiery as the first book of The Human Comedy.
As we speak of Virgil we must think of a world of epic stature, that grew as great as Rome and fell just as surely as Rome. In one way we are traveling through a world as ancient to us as we would consider a symbol of its literature, the Aeneid. In his journeys from the sacked city of Troy, Aeneas met and fell in love with the Queen of the Carthaginians, Dido. And Virgil commented that a nation should be ruled by a woman to be so foreign to his people he had to document "Dux femina facti" which means the leader of the thing was a woman.
So our guide is no Virgil. Our guide is a woman, Barbara Tuchman. And as it once was, once again "Dux femina facit."
To be continued...January 30, 2014.
Barbara Tuchman was born Barbara Wertheimer, January 30, 1912, the daughter of prominent banker Maurice Wertheimer. Well that didn't take long. Interrupted. 2/5/2014
William Kent Krueger has created a good man Cork O'Corcoran, half Irish and half Ashinuabinni Indian. A former police officer in Chicago, Cork moved bWilliam Kent Krueger has created a good man Cork O'Corcoran, half Irish and half Ashinuabinni Indian. A former police officer in Chicago, Cork moved back to his home in Tamarack County. He was the Sheriff, married to a beautiful intelligent woman, and proud father of three children.
But things go terribly wrong when the Native Americans determine to exercise their fishing rights to the whole of Iron Lake. The lake is lined with resorts. Sport fishing is a huge draw to the resorts. O'Corcoran's objective is to see "The People" get to their boats safely and exercise their rights to fish the lake. However, the owner of a resort, terrified he will be put out of business, draws a gun as the Shinnobs make their way to their fishing boats. A shot is fired. A Shinnob Elder is killed. O'Corcoran takes out the resort owner, emptying his revolver into the assailant.
O'Corcoran's qualifications are called into question. A recall election is held. O'Corcoran is no longer Sheriff of Tamarack County. Depression follows. His wife Jo, rather than support him, wants a divorce. O'Corcoran takes up lodging in his dead Shinnob's quonset hut on the shore of Iron Lake.
Although he's no longer law enforcement, Darla Labeau calls O'Corcoran to report her 18 year old son hasn't returned from delivering the papers on his route. O'Corcoran follows the young man's route. It ends at the house of former Judge Parrant. At first blush it seems the Judge has taken off the top of his head with a shotgun. Son, Sandy, the newly elected Senator for their jurisdiction provides the reason for suicide. His father was riddled with cancer and had six months to live.
Local law enforcement accepts the easy answer, but O'Corcoran's not sure. What follows is a swirl of problems with a radical militia group, problems with accounting at the Reservation's Casino, and a crusty night time photographer who has taken enough photographs of the town's citizens engaging in activity they wouldn't want known to anyone. Those photographs reveal Cork's wife Jo having a hot time in the hot tub with Senator Sandy Parrant.
Of course, the photographer also has pictures of Cork dashing naked from the sauna to splash into the cold water of Iron Lake with Molly Nurmi, a pretty redhead. Although Cork has been headed for a divorce, there's a lot of Lutherans in Tamarack County that wouldn't care that Cork was separated.
Top everything off with an old man's Native belief that there's an ancient monster known as the Windigo who is apparently knocking bodies off left and right.
The plotting is tight. The dialog's just right. Some of the mystery is readily foreseeable. Some isn't.
Will Cork get back together with Jo? Will he restore his reputation? Will he get his job back? All these questions hang in the balance of Cork putting the pieces together.
Altogether this is a very satisfying debut of a likeable character. Don't be surprised if you're reminded of Craig Johnston's Longmire novels. That's not a bad recommendation.
Unlike some debut novels in a series, Krueger gets his story right with a fully put together character in a setting with a good sense of place. This one won't be my last Krueger read. ...more
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: Charlie Huston's Method of Picking up the Pieces
"The thing about getting beat up twice, spending big c
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: Charlie Huston's Method of Picking up the Pieces
"The thing about getting beat up twice, spending big chunks of time cleaning up other people's blood, seeing your dad for the first time in two years, getting in a fight with your best friend, and having sex with someone you think you might really like a lot and then going totally psycho on her, all in a twenty-four hour period, is that it's likely to affect your judgment."--Webb Fillmore Goodhue
I was on the cusp of being a child of the Sixties. It was a different time to put things in a nutshell. I watched a fellow on a confused trip cross heavy traffic unscathed only to walk through the plate glass window of the popular cafeteria just off the Campus of the University of Alabama. I was the token straight of the Psychology Department who got high off the grass smoked by my classmates in an interim course taught by a happy go lucky professor who frequently proclaimed, "What's a fuck between friends" as he eyed potential targets in the coed pool. There were the still young veteran's returning from Vietnam, one questioning the talent of Mozart in comparison to himself who had wasted innumerable Gooks as a gunner on a Huey. Strange times. Times that turned one's thoughts to downright nihilism.
Have you ever wondered what happened to children of the children of the Sixties? Charlie Huston paints us a plausible possibility with the personality of Webb Goodhue.
Take Webb's mother who split to Oregon where she grows organic blackberries, bakes pies, and has an outstanding crop of organic Mary Jane of which she partakes liberally. His father, LL, was a hot author, who stuffed the head of his son with the nobility of teaching. Then LL does a 180 degree turn when he becomes the hot screenwriter in Hollywood.
Huston captures the kaleidoscopic Sixties against the dark background of LA and Hollywood. It's a very appropriate setting that sets up a pile driving, fast and furious read.
Webb's bound to be a little conflicted. However, he opts for the noble profession of teaching. He's a damned fine one until a horrific incident propels Webb into a year of tuning out and dropping out, living with his one best friend Chev who operates a tattoo parlor, scooping up a succession of hot chicks after piercing various intimate parts of their bodies.
Webb's worn out his welcome. Chev's ready to show him the door unless Webb gets off his ass and begins to contribute to the expenses of keeping up their apartment, like paying rent and buying food.
Enter Po-Sin, who might aptly be nicknamed "Darkness at Noon." Po-sin blocks out the sun when he enters a doorway. He's big. He's tough. And he may just be the key to getting Webb to burst out of the bubble of entropy in which he lives.
Po-Sin is in the business of cleaning up things. Nasty things. Po-sin is the founder and CEO of "Clean Team," a trauma clean up service. The pay is $10.00 an hour. Webb reluctantly accepts the job. Po-Sin immerses Webb in a world not for the squeamish, cleaning up the scenes of death where hoarders are not discovered until the smell of their decomposing bodies are detected by their indifferent neighbors. Each job takes different techniques. There's a special need when a suicide fires a heavy calibre weapon into a mouthful of water. Then you can possibly imagine the mess when a fellow does himself in by inserting a pipe bomb in his anus and detonates it while sitting on a water mattress.
But it's not just the business of cleaning up and erasing the signs of death that Webb finds himself involved. There's a great deal of competition among crime scene cleaners in LA. Webb becomes a punching bag for Po-Sin's competition.
Things get complicated when Webb cleans the scene of a 9MM suicide at a Malibu beach house. The daughter of the suicide has hired "Clean Team." Her name is Soledad. She's lonely. She's needy. And she decides that Webb is just the comfort she needs following her father's suicide.
Soledad might also be the key to Webb's salvation, until he goes off on her after a night of good lovin'. Hence, our protagonist Webb recognizes his serious conflicts of judgment, related to that horrific incident that drove him from teaching. The reader will have to discover the incident that triggered Webb's withdrawal from society. Suffice it to say, it's sufficient cause for a man to withdraw from the world. Webb is the poster boy for PTSD.
Huston creates one of the nuttiest criminal heist stories to further propel his story. Soledad's half-brother, Jaime, is in crime over his head. Jaime is seriously limited in intelligence. His incompetence leads to the kidnapping of Soledad.
Webb must overcome his wish to live inside himself to sort out the mess into which Jaime has gotten his half-sister. At the same time, Webb struggles with whether he trusts Soledad. Is she part and parcel of this heist? Did she have a part in her father's death? Was it a suicide or was it murder?
Huston will have you turning the pages as fast as possible, with breaks to ease the queasiness in your stomach from very realistic portraits of crime scenes, messy suicides, and the decomposing fluids and tissues of the forgotten dregs of society. And you will be horrified at what you find yourself laughing at.
This is my first Huston read. It will not be the last. This is a guilty pleasure. Quirky, you say? Well, I've always liked quirky. What about you?
There's plenty of material here to allow the adventures of Webb Goodhue to continue. Let's hope they do.
One cautionary statement here. This book is not for the squeamish. I do not know the source of Huston's accuracy in describing the horror of the signs of death. However, having visited more crime scenes than I ever wanted as a prosecutor for twenty-eight years, Huston knows his stuff. Well, let's make it two cautionary statements. If you are offended by profanity, you may be offended by its frequent use in this tale. However, I did not find it excessive in the context of the characters in this story.
Charlie Huston is one of THE voices of contemporary noir. Read it. Underneath the glib, the irreverent, is a message of deep humanity of what it means to live outside of one's self. That's not a bad thing.
"If you want it, here it is, come and get it Make your mind up fast If you want it, anytime, I can give it But you b52 Pickup: Elmore Leonard's Card Game
"If you want it, here it is, come and get it Make your mind up fast If you want it, anytime, I can give it But you better hurry 'cause it may not last
Did I hear you say That there must be a catch? Will you walk away From a fool and his money?" --Paul McCartney, 1970
Ever played 52 Pickup? It only takes two players. A standard deck will do. It's a joke, man. The dealer's in on the trick. The stooge is the pigeon, the patsy. The dealer shuffles the deck. Ready? The dealer throws the deck up in the air, scattering the cards on the floor, gleefully yelling, "52 Pickup!" And the pigeon has to pick up the cards.
Elmore Leonard plays 52 Pick Up with the best of them. But cards are not what you need to play his game. It's dollars. Lots of them.
Alan Raimy is a pretty smart guy. He's got a degree in Business Advertising. He can read a Dunn and Bradstreet analysis. He likes Ranco Manufacturing owned and run by Harry Mitchell. Business hasn't been so good for Alan. Sex gets a smart guy in trouble, especially when the girlies are underage. You know, it starts out simple, a little wienie wagging and then you're giving teeny boppers a little weed and you're off the street for a bit. Alan has an adult theater.
Alan has friends. Leo is the set up. He's got this modeling studio where guys can rent a polaroid and photograph a model in a little white room for next to nothing. Leo has a cute little twenty one year old girl named Cini, working her way through school.
Sometimes you hold all the cards. In walks Harry Mitchell with a business client who wants a little fun. Harry's client hits on Cini, but she's not playing. Cini talks to Harry.
Harry's got hormones. Cini's half his wife's age. She's young, she's fresh. Harry rents an apartment for Cini. Harry and Cini have sex. Alan has it on film. He'll show the film to Harry's wife and other people that might view this film as a blemish on Harry's reputation.
But Harry's stubborn. He knows one payment won't be the end of it. He's stalling on the down payment of 10K.
Harry's going to have to learn the hard way. Alan produces a little snuff film with C1ni as the star. Alan's muscle, Bobby Shay, who likes to pull the trigger is the third in this merry little band of bad asses. Oh, yeah. And the gun that snuffs Cyni, it's Harry's.
Harry's over a barrel, right? No. Elmore Leonard is writing this story. You know the bad guys are not going to beat him. You're cheering for Harry.
It's simple. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You know what they say about assume. It makes an ass out of you and me. Alan has picked the wrong patsy. Harry's no simple white collar business man. He started Ranco. He worked on the line for nineteen years. He's got brawn and brains. Sometimes a Dunn & Bradstreet doesn't tell you all you need to know. Things like Harry was a World War II fighter pilot who shot down nine Luftwaffe planes.
Harry spills the beans to Barbara, his wife of twenty-two years. Gosh, I've only screwed around on you once! Barbara forgives. Hmmm, male fantasy? She's missed Harry. Frenzied lovemaking follows. Long leisurely lovemaking follows.
Harry spins his trap. Divide and conquer. Cut a deal with Alan. Show him the books. Show him he can only pay $52,000.00. Let nature take its course. $52,000 split three ways doesn't go as far as $105,000.00. The gang of three will take care of themselves, especially after Harry tells Leo and Bobby about the deal he's cut with Alan.
Sit back. Have a good whiskey. Enjoy the ride. Do you really have any question on who's going to be left standing when this game is played out?
Leonard's dialog crackles. The action moves faster than a bullet. The suspense crackles. A bit dated? Consider this a look back at the 70s. This is no Brady Bunch. Just roll with it.
This is another Leonard novel that made it to the movies. A good one.
The 1986 film directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Roy Scheider, Ann Margaret as Barbara and Kelly Prestion as Cini.
In 2011, the film made the litmus test list of top twenty man movies. I'd say if there were a list of books appealing to men, Leonard's novel would make the list, too.
And, if somebody asks you to play 52-Pickup, make sure you're the dealer.
"Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any more shallower and the corpse was liab
Mudbound: Hillary Jordan's Debut Novel
Hillary Jordan, 2011
"Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any more shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood. Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, re-formed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony--the old man getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thoughts and memories."
Henry and Jamie McAllan are brothers digging the grave for their father, Pappy. In the words of Shakespeare, "Nothing became him in life like the leaving it."
To cut to the chase, Hillary Jordanwrote a fine debut novel. The setting is the Mississippi Delta in 1946. Big brother Henry, a veteran of World War One, and a hard working member of the Corp of Army Engineers, marries city bred Laura of Memphis, Tennessee. Laura is thirty-one, an English teacher, whose mother had feared she would die an old maid.
Following their marriage, Laura is shocked to learn that Henry always wanted to be a farmer. He has bought two hundred acres of rich Delta dirt and packs Laura and their two daughters off to a wonderful home which he had rented for them to live in while he worked the farm. However, Henry, ever trustful, has been duped. When they arrive at the home, Henry and family learn that the previous owner has sold the home. With all the soldiers returning from World War Two, there are no other houses to rent.
Mississippi Delta Cotton Field
Not only does Henry need a home for his wife and daughters, he needs one for his Pappy. Pappy is a curmudgeonly old man who tyrannizes Laura and terrifies his granddaughters.
It's off to Henry's farm which he wants to name "Fair Fields." Laura who quickly learns the farm floods every time the river rises dubs it "Mud Bound." Not only does the land flood, but their home is cut off from the nearest town.
Jordan deftly weaves the lives of the McAllan and Jackson families into a riveting story. Hap and Florence Jackson are tenant farmers on Henry's land. Florence is the community's mid-wife and purveyor of folk remedies. Florence also comes to work for Laura in the McAllan home.
What Jordan does to create such a compelling read is the use of multiple voices. Mudbound is told initially by Jamie, Laura, Henry, Hap, and Florence. To Jordan's credit, each voice is unique, and each member of this chorus adds their own perfect thoughts and observations to propel the novel from start to finish.
Jordan really hits her stride when she adds Ronsel Jackson, the eldest son of Hap and Florence. Ronsel has served in the European theater of war as a member of the Black Panthers, famous for their furious assaults against the German Army. This was one of George Patton's favored units.
The 761st Black Panthers whose motto was "Come out Fighting"
Both Jamie and Ronsel carry the emotional scars of their combat. Both are decorated heroes. Jamie won the Distinguished Flying Cross flying B-24 Liberators. Ronsel rose to the rank of Tank Commander and has a chest full of medals. The experiences that haunt them bind them together as friends. But they are also bound by alcoholism to forget the nightmares of war.
B-24 Liberator Heavy Bomber
But we must remember this is Mississippi in the 1940s. Both men must deal with forbidden love. Jamie must handle his feelings for his brother's wife, Laura. Ronsel learns he has fathered a child by a German widow. Both Jamie and Ronsel must deal with the Ku Klux Klan. The final third of Jordan's novel speeds to a tumultuous conclusion. It is impossible to put this novel down until the final page is reached. There is a fine denoument awaiting the reader
Jordan was born in Dallas, Texas, living there and in Muscogee, Oklahoma, until she attended Wellesley College. Her route to writing was a circuitous one. Jordan entered the world of advertising, and created a number of commercials featuring the Everready Bunny. Imagine that.
Fortunately for readers of this novel, Jordan entered the MFA program in creative writing at Columbia University. Prior to its publication Mudbound won the prestigious Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction in 2008. The Prize was established by Barbara Kingsolver.
Jordan is currently working on a sequel to Mudbound which picks up the action several years after the action in this work during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. I can't wait.
First edition, Random House, New York, New York, 1973
"He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of s
Child of God: Cormac McCarthy's Outcast
First edition, Random House, New York, New York, 1973
"He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.
The setting is Sevier County, Tennessee, in the 1960s. Our protagonist is twenty-seven. He is an orphan. His life between the suicide of his father and the loss of his home is an unanswered question. We are dropped into his story in medias res in the finest Faulkner style. As the story opens, the small, unclean, unshaven man watches his home place go on the auction block.
I have a long and uncomfortable history with Cormac McCarthy. He has repeatedly held me breathless with his novels full of violence and human degradation. But he has said that these are usual conditions of life. I cannot argue with him.
Consider Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, the Ted Bundys of this world. I am constantly reminded of the words of John Steinbeck from East of Eden: "You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”
Child of God is McCarthy's third novel, published in 1973. I had read three of what I call his "Southern Quartet." However, this one remained on the shelf. Call it taking a hiatus. Or, call it a necessary breather, particularly after being wrung by the neck by Outer Dark.
It took the novel being selected for a group read by members of "On the Southern Literary Trail" to cause me to begin to turn the pages. I began last night. It was after 10:00 when I turned to the first page. I turned the last around 3:30 this morning. McCarthy had done it again. I was drained. Sleep refused to come to me. I do not know when I drifted off to sleep.
How can one like a novel about a murderer who exercises his lust on his victims? It is a testament to the craft of McCarthy. He unflinchingly portrays the life and tragedy of Lester Ballard.
Scott Haze as Leroy Ballard in James Franco's film, "Child of God," 2013
It is discomforting that he builds sympathy for this devil. However, McCarthy does not ask forgiveness for him.
In the final analysis, we confront the question,"Is man the product of nature or nurture?" While every man may be a child of God, it is the lack of, or indifference of community that unleashes a monster. Nor should that assertion be taken as an excuse for the behavior of McCarthy's Lester Ballard.
"The people Jesus loved were shopping at the Star Market yesterday. An old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps.
Even after his bags were packed he still stood, breathing hard and hawking into his hand. The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them: shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, as if the Star Market
had declared a day off for the able-bodied, and I had wandered in with the rest of them—sour milk, bad meat— looking for cereal and spring water.
Jesus must have been a saint, I said to myself, looking for my lost car in the parking lot later, stumbling among the people who would have been lowered into rooms by ropes, who would have crept
out of caves or crawled from the corners of public baths on their hands and knees begging for mercy.
If I touch only the hem of his garment, one woman thought, could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?"
The Tilted World: Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly's Tag Team Novel
I've followed the career of Tom Franklin from his initial anthology Poachers. HThe Tilted World: Tom Franklin & Beth Ann Fennelly's Tag Team Novel
I've followed the career of Tom Franklin from his initial anthology Poachers. He is a dizzying wonder of the genre that has become known as "Grit Lit." These are the stories of the Rough South hearkening back to Harry Crews, Tim McLaurin and others. He's provided the introduction to Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader that gives about the best explanation of this growing subgenre of Southern Literature I've read.
Read through his collected works following Poachers--Hell at the Breech based on The Mitcham County War in Clarke County, Alabama; Smonk, in which a vile dwarf vows to kill every man in another small Alabama town, and you wonder where this pleasant man with a winning smile comes up with his ideas. Franklin mellowed somewhat with Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. In fact, I told a close goodread friend I thought this was Franklin's effort at a breakthrough novel, winning a wider audience.
In short, I admire Franklin's skill as a writer greatly. However, as an avid reader, I've noted women don't fare too well in his previous stories and novels. His tales generally comprise the world of men. It's not that they are absent. In Smonk, ladies abound, but only as widows as Smonk sets out to weed out the male population. Now, there's an exceptionally tough young woman named Evangeline on Smonk's trail. However, let's just say, as a woman she has some serious issues, capable of the same degree of violence as Smonk.
Now, Tom Franklin seems to have gotten in touch with his feminine side. Don't be fooled, although goodreads shows Franklin as the sole author. His co-author is his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, noted poet, head of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi (Tom's boss?) and the author of Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother
I've had the pleasure of meeting Tom Franklin upon the debut of his last three novels. Chatting with him is always a pleasure. Recently I saw him at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, excitedly asking Daniel Woodrell to sign HIS latest, The Maid's Version. I asked Franklin how was it co-writing The Tilted World: A Novel with his wife. He gave one of his trademark grins and said, "We survived." Indeed they did. And before we get to the meat of the coconut, I hope this won't be their last collaboration.
Here's the writing team:
Franklin & Fennelly
Set in the small river town of Hobnob, Mississippi, during the Great Flood of 1927, Franklin provides the grit we've come to expect. However, the star of this novel is Dixie Clay Holliver. She was originally a Birmingham, Alabama, girl. But charming Jesse Holliver began to call on her in her family's home when Dixie was just twelve. Holliver dressed well. He claimed to be a wealthy trapper earning great profits trapping furs.
Dixie's family consented to Holliver's proposal when she turned sixteen. On reaching Hobnob, Dixie Clay learned she was married to one of the biggest bootleggers who business extended from Mississippi, up through Tennesse, and over to Alabama. Although Dixie would be a jewel for most men, Jesse was a sporting man, not about to abandon his visits to the ladies of all the gentlemen's night visits in the area.
Dixie's a practical woman. She learns fast. It would be best if she took to tending the still while Jesse took over just the distribution. Dixie Clay's a crack shot and finds she manufactures the best whiskey ever produced in the area. She adds class to the product, bottling the whiskey in labelled bottles. Business is just fine.
However, Jacob, the son Jesse makes on her dies young. She is humiliated to track Jesse down at one of the local sporting houses, asking the Madame for her husband to come down. Jesse's answer is simple. There'll be other babies.
But more is coming to Hobnob than the Great Flood. Two Prohibition Agents have paid a call on Jesse. He claims business as usual telling Dixie he bribed them. Dixie suspects Jesse just may be a murderer because those two Agents have gone missing according to folks in town.
Neither Jesse or Dixie Clay know that Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce, who has been sent by Calvin Coolidge to head up flood control and rescue operations, has sent out two unbribable Prohibition Agents, Ted Engersoll and Ham Johnson to find the missing agents. The two have been partners since watching each others backs during World War One. The men are posing as levee engineers to cover their real reason for coming to Hobnob.
The Great Humanitarian? Hoover will be swept into the White House as a result of his presence during the Great Flood.
Along the way, Ted, who was raised an orphan finds a dead family. Only a small boy, an infant survives. Ted checks out the local orphanage, finds it unacceptable, and fosters the child until by chance he crosses the path of Dixie Clay. Hearing Dixie has recently lost her own child, what better solution could Ted have found than a bereaved mother. Ted leaves the child having no idea this new mother is the best bootlegger around.
Ted and Ham fuss over Ted's delaying their mission by rescuing the child. Ham will fuss even more when Ted begins to slip away, drawn to Dixie Clay whom he finds beautiful.
As the river rages, the levees are tested. Will they hold? The danger of saboteurs is real. Should somebody from the Arkansas side blow Hobnobs levee it's the Mississippi side that will flood. Jesse's in the thick of it as you would expect. Business is business.
The river and its tributaries are at their most treacherous. The Indians called it "The Place Where the World Tilts. Hobnob, filled with refugees from upriver, is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Just one image of the aftermath of The Great Flood
Franklin and Fennelly keep the pace fast and furious. These two writers have created a fine and satisfying read you will hate to see come to an end. This is a team of literary soul mates.
This is a solid 4.5 Star read. The only thing preventing that remaining .5 is that by focusing on the story of this small band of main characters, the full impact of the Great Flood is lost, Franklin and Fennelly's fine historical prologue nevertheless present.
My wife and I traveled to Oxford, Ms., to one of my favorite destinations, Square Books, on September 11, 2013, to hear Daniel Woodrell discuss his latest novel, The Maid's Version. I eagerly bought my copy of the novel. Author readings and signings are handled at Off Square Books, just a few doors down on the Square. The store was filling up fast when Woodrell walked in.
I was surprised at his appearance. He had lost a great deal of weight. Oxford regulars surrounded Woodrell as he slowly made his way to the podium. Woodrell's discussion of his new novel was fascinating. He told us that this new novel was a change of direction from his previous works. He attributed his literary change resulted from his battle with cancer, colon cancer. The treatment had included surgery and chemotherapy. His voice was soft. One had to lean forward to catch what he had to say. It was an occasion that a public address system would have been helpful to the author and the audience. His reading was fast. It seemed to diminish his energy as he read.
In summary, Woodrell explained that his illness had prompted him to consider his stories in a more introspective view. He had turned to family history and a catastrophic event in his home West Plains, Missouri, which is represented by the town of West Table, Missouri, in his previous Ozarks works.
Woodrell had achieved cult status among readers in the know prior to the release of the movie "Winter's Bone." I've read a number of them. The Death of Sweet Mister. Tomato Red. Winter's Bone. Give Us a Kiss is cued up close to the top of my read stack. The novels have a definite theme of good and evil. The arching theme of those novels is whether Woodrell's characters have a way out of the situation in which they find themselves. All too often the answer is no. Darkness pervades the Woodrells I have read.
Woodrell is content with his new direction on the literary compass. He has said if his readers disagree with his new perspective it may not bring him affluence. However, he has found solace with "The Maid's Version. In fact, Woodrell's next work will be set outside of the Missouri Ozarks. I am eager to see where he takes us.
"The Maid's Version" is based on a community disaster that occurred in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928. A dance hall located over a garage exploded, killing 39 people. It has been a mystery without solution over the years. Was it an accident? Most residents don't think so. The suspected motives and wrongdoers have been discussed for years.
Woodrell changes minor details in his literary work. This is not a history. The date of the explosion is changed to 1929, an acknowledgement of a changing nation on the brink of an America on the brink of the Great Depression. For pure dramatic impact, Woodrell describes the monument erected to the memory of the victims as a black angel that seems to move in a macabre dance under circumstances I leave the reader to discover.
The Actual Dance Hall Victims' Monument
Where Woodrell has previously concentrated on isolated outcasts of the community, this is the story of a community facing an unexplained loss of individuals known to the community, members of it. Woodrell details the suspicions, the suspects, and lingering doubts of whether so many lives could have been lost as the result of an unexplainable accident.
The narrator is Alek Dunahew who is spending the summer with his grandmother, Alma Dunahew, in West Table, Missouri. Thirty-six years have passed since the dance hall disaster. Alma is the maid whose version this tale is. Alma carries a burning anger inside her that no responsibility has ever been placed for the explosion. She passes down the story to grandson, Alek, to keep the memory of the incident alive.
Alma lost someone precious to her in the fire, her sister, Ruby, a beautiful young woman, who drew many men to her as easily as a Siren. And Ruby took lover after lover until their gifts no longer inspired a continued relationship. Alma has exhibited her grief through her anger at the town's refusal to fully investigate the incident. For she is sure she has solved the mystery. In her angry pursuit for truth she has become an outcast of the community for whom the tragedy has only become an incident of history to be forgotten, or, perhaps hidden.
Alma reveals the town history to Alek on walks, pointing out various landmarks, ultimately coming to the town cemetery.
"On these rambles the cemetery was nearly always our final destination. We'd make our way through the wilderness of headstones, gray, brown, puritan white, glancing at some, nodding at some, Alma turning her nose up at others, until we reached the Black Angel, the sober monument to our family loss and a town bereaved. Standing in the shadow of this angel she would on occasion tell me about a suspect person or deed, a vague or promising suspicion she'd acquired with her own sharp ears or general snooping, and when she shared the fishy details with me it would be the first time she'd said them aloud to anybody in years. She'd repeat herself so I would remember."
A sudden summer storm prompts Alma to tell Alek of the town's disaster.
"Storm clouds were scored by bright lightning, and thunder boomed. Her dress was flapping, her eyes narrowed and distant, and she cunningly chose that raging moment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall explosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blown toward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames, and why it happened."
West Table is a town of haves and have nots. Alma has lived her life among the poor. She has served as maid to the richest families in the town. She bristles at her services effect on her own family.
"She hated that she fed another man's children before she fed her own. She cleared the supper table, the plates yet rife with food in this house of plenty, potatoes played with, bread crusts stacked on the tablecloth unwanted, meat bones set aside with enough shreds on them to set her own sons fighting one another for a chance to gnaw them clean and white. Her own sons sucked cold spuds at home, waiting."
And, in Alma's mind it is the Haves who have quietly closed the investigation. Where is justice? There must be justice.
Interspersed through a narrative that grows more powerful with each page are vignettes of the couples "murdered midstep." They are people you like. They are innocent. And they are doomed. It is Woodrell's testament to life no matter how simple its quality may be.
Some critics have found the novel flawed by these vignettes. Their question is how could Alek possibly narrate these facts. I find no difficulty in following Woodrell's purpose or method. Alek learned of the slaughtered innocents through Alma's telling their stories. The presence of these dancers' stories strengthens rather than weakens this novel. There is great power in poignancy not laden with sentimentality.
By novel's end, reader, you will have the answer. You will know the who and the how and the why. Alma will guide you there, through Alek.
Woodrell continues to amaze me. It is a powerful change in literary direction. What's next? One can only wonder. But there's no question about this one. This is a FIVE STAR Read.
The Bottoms: Joe R. Lansdale's Edgar Award Winning Mystery
Joe R. Lansdale
Just a few weeks ago my neighbor handed me a copy of By Bizarre Hands, the fThe Bottoms: Joe R. Lansdale's Edgar Award Winning Mystery
Joe R. Lansdale
Just a few weeks ago my neighbor handed me a copy of By Bizarre Hands, the first anthology of short stories by Joe R. Lansdale. My neighbor is a professor of literature. I take his recommendations seriously. It was my first exposure to Landsdale. I was impressed.
I finished the anthology a few days before travelling to Texas to visit my wife's cousin, Kathleen. I usually travel with a book set in my destination. I chose The Bottoms to take along.
While some may question my classifying this novel as a work of Southern Literature, Texas is a mighty big State. It consists of distinct geographic areas, populated by very diverse people. Cross into Texas from Louisiana and you find yourself in East Texas, marked by huge tracts of pines, riversswamps, and the bottoms of the Sabine River.
The area is decidedly "Southern" as opposed to Cowboy country. It is the land of "The Big Thicket" that covers miles of territory which was known as a place in earlier days into which one could go and rarely be found if that was the traveler's intention.
The Big Thicket
Landale's novel is narrated by Harry Collins, now in his nineties, the resident of a nursing home. Recognizing his mortality, he tells the tale of life with his family in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Thirteen year old Harry was the son of a loving mother and father, and doted on baby sister, Tom, short for Thomasina. Yes, Tom is a tomboy. Harry and his family are better off than most. His father is a farmer, a barber, and most important, the town constable. Both his parents have a strong moral code stressing the value of human life no matter the color of another person's skin.
Should the reader think this is sounding familiar, it should. This is Lansdale's move of To Kill a Mockingbird from Alabama to Texas. As Jem and Scout were intent on bringing Boo Radley out of hiding, so Harry and Tom are fascinated with an elusive figure known as "The Goat Man."
"The Goatman" is a well known Texas folklore legend. Outside of Denton, Texas, stands the old Alton Bridge, built in 1884. A black goat farmer Oscar Washburn lived nearby. In 1938, for reasons unknown, he was dragged from his family home, and lynched by hanging from the Altmon bridge. When the Klan came back to check on the their handiwork, Washburn's body was gone. Through decades, the Goatman has been sighted on the Alton bridge, sometimes as a figure leading herds of goats, sometimes carrying the heads of two goats, and sometimes as a figure half man and half goat.
The Goatman's Bridge
Known also as a writer of horror, it comes as no surprise that the Goatman appears as a central figure of interest courtesy of Joe Lansdale. The only change being that the bridge has been transformed into a deteriorating swinging bridge. Come on, it's near Halloween. Just go with it.
The Goatman of Texas Lore
Harry and Tom are accompanied on their adventures by an unforgettable dog named Toby. Although severely injured, Toby is indestructible and a loyal companion to his kids.
While out squirrel hunting, Harry and Tom find the body of a black woman, mutilated, and bound in barbed wire. Their discovery becomes the first of a series of murders. Constable Collins doggedly pursues the killer, although the white population shows no concern. Of what value is a dead black woman who was nothing more than a prostitute?
Racism rears its ugly head. Following in the footsteps of Atticus Finch, Collins is determined to solve the murders. His white neighbors dub him a "nigger lover."
Things rapidly turn uglier when a white woman becomes a victim of the mysterious killer. The Klan comes out and lynches an innocent black man. Jacob Collins crawls into a bottle when he is unable to prevent the Klan from carrying out hanging Oscar, the man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor Mose has lived alone since the disappearance of his wife and brain addled son years ago.
The town settles down until another white woman is found dead. This victim is no prostitute, but a respected member of the community, sought after by many suitors. Think "Miss Maudie."
Jacob Collins wreaks vengeance on the ring leaders of Mose's killers. He climbs out of the bottle to bring the real killer to light. Harry and Tom begin their longest journey one night, just as Jem and Scout did. Tom is the killer's intended victim. And the Goat Man comes out just as Boo Radley did.
The Bottoms is a satisfying read. However, I would have found it more satisfying had it ended with Jacob sitting up in Tom's room, knowing he would still be there the next morning.
There are flaws in this book. There are numerous sub-plots setting up other possible suspects that Lansdale's solution is to wrap them up in an extended epilogue by Harry which borders on the tedious. I found Harry's lengthy conclusion less than satisfying. I leave it to the reader to make their own determination.
Perhaps this is Joe Lansdale's homage to that masterpiece of Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. I'll give him the benefit of a doubt. This novel is an expansion of his young adult novella,Mad Dog Summer found in Mad Dog Summer: And Other Stories. Lansdale is currently producing a film of The Bottoms, starring Bill Paxton.
Joe R. Lansdale is a prolific writer. The Bottoms captured the 2001 Edgar Award for best mystery. He has won the British Fantasy Award, the American Horror Award and has scooped up nine Bram Stoker Awards, and was voted a World Horror Grand Master. He is the author of the popular Hap and Leonard Series. His latest novel is The Thicket. Lansdale, born in Gladewater, Texas, now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he is the writer in residence at Stephen F. Austin. ...more