So you've read True Grit but thought it could be both funnier and dirtier, maybe with a bit more violence? May I introduce you to The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale.
I imagine it’s rare that a book can be summed up by its opening line, but The Thicket is one such book. I’ll share this and spare you what would be an even lengthier synopsis than you are going to get.
I didn't suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.
Well, there you have it. There’s more to it than that, of course, because that sentence doesn't convey how truly hilarious this book can be. It’s dark fiction, but it is funny dark fiction – which is the best kind. Because if you can’t laugh about it, you have to cry - and no one likes to cry. Well, maybe a few of you, but not me. I may or may not be dissembling here. You decide.
Jack Parker loses his parents. It’s not wholly unexpected, as both of his parents had smallpox, but still... Jack and his sister Lula are to be taken in by their aunt, with their grandfather transporting them to their final destination. Things don’t go as planned, the ferry crossing the river is high-jacked by bandits and then overturned by a tornado, but not before his grandfather is shot and killed. Jack survives. As does Lula, but the highwaymen kidnap her with the full intention of violating her. Jack plans to rescue her, but being 16 and ill-equipped for such a raid hinders his progress. He then meets Shorty (one short misanthrope) and Eustace (sometimes gravedigger and son of a slave), who promise to rescue his sister in exchange for the deed to his property. Eustace has a belligerent hog that’s smarter than your average dog and far more liking to eat you. And so begins the adventure so summarily described in the opening sentence.
Joe R. Lansdale is a gifted storyteller; he brings you into the wilds of East Texas and never lets you go. Do you like your fiction dark and irreverent? (You do? Me too.) In The Thicket, one minute you’ll be enjoying (or groaning at, depending on your penchant for wordplay) short/dwarf puns and the next you’ll be cringing as the rusty nail is shoved through various male appendages (though I imagine there’s only one that counts for anything, but if you want to look at the positive side, you’d always have a place to sit if you're quite literally nailed to a chair).
On of Lansdale's hallmark is creating an incredible sense of place. In this case, the setting is east Texas just before the oil boom. It is of some discussion between Shorty and Eustace whether oil is the way of the future; Shorty says yes, Eustace says no. This gives you great insight into the dynamic of the two would-be heroes (and a glance into the way oil affected history and the way it's still doing so now. Shorty provides a large part of the intelligent comic relief, while Eustace’s humor is a bit less intentional. While both are great characters, Shorty is brilliant.
And then there’s Jack. Poor Jack can’t catch a break, from a grandmother run over by a cow to a raft overturned by a tornado; he’s seen his share of tragedy. Connecting with the two unlikely companions gives Jack the chance he needs to get Lula back. Along the way, Jack must learn to balance his staunch moral view of the world with the realities he must face. He then rescues a prostitute, after procuring her services (morality’s a slippery slope), and the unlikely foursome set out after the bandits. Although The Thicket could be considered a western, it is also a coming of age story. True Grit meets Stand by Me, if you will (to borrow the very apt sentiment from the New York Times Book Review).
You are so definite, kid. Seldom right, but always certain.
Joe R. Lansdale has done (again) what he does best. He has written a wonderful, bizarre story with East Texas roots and enough humor to take the edge off his typical darkness. There are gun fights, torture scenes, whore houses, and humor. In this part western, part coming of age story, none of the characters remain unscathed, but the battle might produce a loyal hero or two. The Thicket* is bloody, funny, and, at times, brilliant.