They Still Write Westerns?

Yeah, evidently they do.  And I just read a really good one. I would never have picked up a western on my own, but Gav, Simon, Kate and Rob of Hear…Read This recommended it pretty highly (episode 17 if you want to hear their discussion), and so I gave it a whirl.  

The Thicket, by Joe Lansdale, starts with a bang, but not from gunfire.  Jack, the teenaged narrator, and his younger sister Lula, have just watched both their parents die from a grisly pox. Most of the town is dead from it as well. Their grandfather packs up the three of them, some mules and a wagon, to leave west Texas for an obscure aunt in Kansas.  They come to a river where there used to be a bridge, but some enterprising bastard has burnt it down in favor of making folks pay him for a ferry ride across.  

As Grandpa is trying unsucessfully to haggle a price on the ferry ride, three stange men show up for a ride as well, and their tense ride across the river together had me holding my breath. Both humans and Mother Nature contribute to the swirl of violence that ensues, leaving Grandpa shot dead,  Jack almost drowned, and Lula on the wrong side of the river, kidnapped by the less-than-savory men. And that’s just chapter one!

Jack’s only concern now is getting back his sister, but first he has to find help.  This is by no means a straighforward process, and he finally ends up with a sharp-shooting, philosophical dwarf, the son of a slave who can’t hold his liquor, and a smelly, angry hog.  So, forget Kansas, this is a different journey, full of mean, sometimes stupid men, fallen women, and a whole lot of killing. 

Every time I look at the author photo in the dust jacket, I freak out, because Joe Lansdale looks like a quiet, uncommunicative Norwegian, yet his Western style of writing uses more than a bit of cheek to create very straightforward descriptions. For example, Jack describes his grandfather’s frugality thus: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” Some of the dialogue is downright hilarious in its ridiculousness.  Here’s a typical exchange, when Jack’s party is questioning an injured boy they find on the trail:

     “Let him tell it,” Shorty said.
     “I done told it,” the colored boy said. “I was riding in the back of the wagon with the goods. Mr. Druskin and his dog, Butch, was in the buck seat driving the mules. I mean Mr. Druskin. The dog didn’t know how.”
     “That’s disappointing,” Jimmie Sue said.
     “Yeah,” Spot said. “I would have liked that. A dog driving a wagon.”
     “Would you two shut up?” Shorty said.

There are also passages of great beauty, like this moment when Jack is falling asleep, wishing things had gone differently crossing that river: “I remembered that mule flying over me, and somehow, the way I saw it in my troubled head, I was on that mule’s back, and it had wings, and my sister was sitting behind me, her arms around my waist, and we were flying rapidly up and away, into a sky blue as a Swede’s eye.”

What makes the violence in the story bearable is that we the readers are inhabiting the experience through Jack, who is a good kid.  Of course he changes as a result of his experiences, but he changes his companions as well.  They are better off for knowing each other.

This was a really enjoyable book to read.  It’s what the John Ford movie The Searchers should have been, for me.  I hate that movie.  It’s gorgeous, and the story is similar, in that some bad men kill a family and steal the daughter, so the plot is about the journey to find her and rescue her.  Only, in the the film, the bad guys are Native Americans, and John Wayne’s character keeps telling the other guy (her brother?) how she won’t be pure anymore, she’ll be tainted, like it’s her fault.  He despises her almost more than the men who took her.  It’s despicable on soooo many levels.  The Thicket was a fabulous antidote. I might even read another Western after this. So suck it, John Ford!