Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lost in the thicket

I am not a fan of Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of novels, but his stand-alone Texas tales, such as The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line, are excellent and The Ticket (2013) is his best yet, at least among those I've read.

The story takes place soon after the turn of the 20th century, when automobiles have just started to appear on Texas roads, but otherwise the rural areas of the state remain a wild frontier. Jack, a teenager who narrates the tale, loses his parents to smallpox, then sees his grandfather murdered and sister Lulu kidnapped by Cut Throat Bill and his band of criminals. Like Mattie Ross in True Grit, the boy wants to pursue the villains, but he needs help.

Jack's Rooster Cogburn turns out to be Shorty, a former circus midget, and Eustace, an alcoholic black man with a big shotgun and modest skills at tracking. They agree to try to rescue Lulu in exchange for Jack's newly inherited land, plus the outstanding rewards on the heads of Cut Throat Bill and the members of his gang. Along the way they are joined by Jimmie Sue, a young prostitute who falls for Jack and sees him as her ticket to a new life; Sheriff Winton, who would like a share of that bounty for himself, and Spot, a black man who cleans up the sheriff's office and goes along to make sure he gets his small reward for passing along key information about the whereabouts of the gang.

The Thicket, named for the area where Cut Throat Bill's hideout is eventually found, is by turns a funny and violent adventure, yet it also proves to be full of poignant commentary about the human condition. Explaining to Jack about the justification for killing the bad guys, Winton says, "Life isn't just black of white, here or there;  it's got some mud in it, and we're some of the mud." Later Jack himself observes, "To some extent I find sin like coffee. When I was young and had my first taste of it I found it bitter and nasty, but later on I learned to like it by putting a little milk in it, and then I learned to like it black. Sin is like that. You sweeten it a little with lies, and then you get so you can take it straight. I just didn't want to do it all the way. I wanted to keep a little milk in it." Life, in other words, is something of a thicket, a place where you can get lost but also where you can be found.

Lansdale is a fine, under-appreciated writer, and in The Thicket he is at his finest.

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