Joe R. Lansdale is by and large one of the most unique and often glossed over writers of his time. His books evoke a sense of wonder and bewilderment among readers whilst being smart, coy and hilarious. From horror to sci-fi to westerns and everything in between, Lansdale is a truly inspiring and unique voice in narrative fiction.
With his newest novel, Edge Of Dark Water, Joe once again returns to the bottoms of East Texas with this young adult (emphasis on adult) tale, much like his previous works A Fine Dark Line, The Bottoms, and The Boar. The story is told from the point of view of 16 year old Sue Ellen Wilson, a wry and cunning teenager on the cusp of puberty trapped in a po-dunk town in East Texas. Her father is an abusive ignoramus, whose idea of a good time is beating her near-comatose alcoholic mother or “fishing” with electrical wires and a club. Sue Ellen’s mother, as stated, is addicted to a drink known as “cure-all”, which is basically a lewd form of moonshine disguised as medicine. Under its spell, she rarely leaves her bed, leaving Sue Ellen to fend for herself, effectively making her much older than her years.
Sue Ellen’s best friends don’t come any further apart for the time and place of the story. Terry is an intelligent and articulate “sissy” (read: gay) with a heart of gold and a curious sense of devotion to the ones he loves. Then there’s Jinx, a rambunctious black girl with a lip as wry and spiteful as they come. She’s uppity and charismatic and not afraid to speak her mind, which is usually contradictory to most everyone else’s. With eccentricities abound, EODW becomes an interesting and oftentimes funny story.
The story begins as Sue Ellen and Terry are fishing down by the river with Sue Ellen’s father Don and uncle Gene. Much to their surprise (not so much the reader’s) they accidentally reel in the body of Sue Ellen’s schoolmate and friend May Lynn. She’s fully clothed and has a sewing machine tied around her ankles with wire. Right from the get-go it’s apparent just what kind of townspeople we’re dealing with: Don and Gene would just as soon throw her back in the water sight unseen, while the town constable, Constable Sy, figures it an inconvenience to have to come haul her out, asking Don why he didn’t just throw her back in the water instead of making some kind of scene.
From there the story takes on an oddly Huck Finn like quality as we learn that May Lynn, by far the prettiest girl in town, had always aspired to be an actress and move out to Hollywood. Terry, hellbent and making sure she sees her dream through, even in death, concocts a plan to dig up her body, cremate it and take the ashes to Hollywood via the river. It gets more interesting, as the youngsters soon find out that May Lynn’s late brother Jake, a bank robber, had stowed away some cash with the intent of giving it to May Lynn. As any vivacious threesome of teenagers on the lam would do, they decide to dig up the money and use it to get them all the way to merry ol’ land of Hollywood.
Of course, nothing is as cut and dry as it seemed on paper. Once May Lynn’s psychotic father Cletus gets wind of the stolen money, he sicks Constable Sy, Sue Ellen’s father and uncle, and a mysterious and terrifying character named Skunk, who is rumored to live in the woods and be an expert tracker and killer, keeping the hands of his victims as trophies. No one knows if he actually exists, and most believe he is just a myth, but mere mention of his name sends goosebumps all along the spines of not only the young kids, but the reader as well. Lansdale does a superb job of crafting a haunting and esoteric madman whose mythos is stomach-churning whether he is real or not.
What Lansdale succeeds the most at in this tale, which has come to be expected with his work, is tone and voice. He expertly sets the reader in the mind of Sue Ellen, taking every painstaking detail, down to the southern drawl and misuse of language and grammar, to make her character really jump off the page as a level-headed and sympathetic character. Almost effortlessly, you are entwined in the time and place of story, as if you’ve been there all along.
He also brilliantly unravels the main characters, turning seemingly one dimensional hum drums (Sue Ellen’s mom, for example) into fully realized and intriguing characters, each with their own talents and expertise, making them a veritable band of crafty miscreants who spit in the face of danger. Along the way we also meet a handful of other eccentrics, including a Southern Baptist Reverend who takes in the clan for an extended stay, and a vicious and lonely old woman who takes them as slaves to do her housework. It’s never predictable, but always enjoyable.
As expected, Lansdale has knocked yet another one out of the park. Though I much prefer his Hap and Leonard series, it’s his standalone novels that really showcase his talents and versatility as a writer, and EODW is no exception. He’s always got something intelligent and witty to say and always says it in the most creative way possible. With EODW, he’s showing us a tale of innocence lost (if it ever really existed) and adolescent discovery from the point of view of the pioneer. He made me feel like I was 16 again, instilling an overflowing sense of wonder and awe into my otherwise jaded and cynical mindset. For this he is a master craftsman, and if you’re a fan of adventure and darkness, you’d be a darned fool not to pick this one up.
Edge of Dark Water – 9.1/10