Thursday, April 5, 2012

Edge of Dark Water (Book Review)

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, 2012)

Lansdale returns to the territory of his Edgar-Award-winning The Bottoms in this latest novel--a Depression-era murder mystery/coming-of-age tale set along the banks of the Sabine River in East Texas.  When
beautiful May Lynn Baxter is dredged up from a watery grave, her friends decide to help the teenager posthumously realize her dream of making it to Hollywood.  The group secretly cremates the body, gathers up the ashes, and then lights out Twain-style by piloting a raft downriver.  So begins a picaresque odyssey that will forever change the lives of the sojourners.

Edge of Dark Water excels on numerous fronts.  The book sports dialogue so sharp, it makes razor wire seem dull as dental floss by comparison.  There are action scenes aplenty, both on the river and off across its shores.  Lansdale deftly weaves in social commentary, particularly in regards to Southern racism (one character recounts a story of lynching that's every bit as harrowing as James Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man").  The protagonists are opposed by some colorful never-do-wells, including the hardly-avuncular Uncle Gene (a man "fat as a hog, but without the personality") and the corrupt, cyclopean Constable Sy.  Most nefarious and unforgettable of all, though, is the legendary predator Skunk, who leaves a trail of butchery in his wake as he hunts down May Lynn's friends.

If Skunk reads like a cross between Injun Joe and Boo Radley, then the book's narrator Sue Ellen Wilson is the literary love child of Huckleberry Finn and Scout Finch.  She's a sardonic but good-hearted sixteen-year-old whose narrative voice (e.g. "As for his cousin Ronnie, I don't think Daddy cared for him one way or the other, and he often made fun of him and imitated him by pretending to bang into walls and slobber about.  Of course, when he was good and drunk, this wasn't an imitation, just a similarity.") sweeps readers up like a flash flood from the very first page.  This plucky tomboy might not be as naturally attractive as her mother, but she's a character with whom its impossible not to fall in love.

Perhaps the one critique that can be made of the novel is that the mystery element is not as strong as it is in The Bottoms.  Lansdale strews plenty of clues that make it fairly obvious who is implicated in May Lynn's death.  Still, many readers will be eager to flip right back to the first chapter after completing the last one--not necessarily to study how the author orchestrated his plot but simply to relish Lansdale's prose.  This is a book where the journey no doubt trumps the destination.

Longtime Lansdale fans are sure to rank Edge of Dark Water amongst his finest work.  And any newcomers (where have you been all this time?) will emerge determined to plunge straightaway into the author's other dark-yet-delightful volumes.


Anonymous said...

Great Post, I love to read articles that are informative and actually have good content. Thank you for sharing your experiences and I look forward to reading more.

AHMAN ADAM said...

I can't imagine keeping up with and the daily process of creation that you've been going thru... I have a blog as well... I think it has three or four entries in it....

Joe Nazare said...

Anonymous: thanks for the kind words. Glad you've been enjoying my posts!

Ahman: Yes, keeping up with the blog is definitely time-consuming and sometimes draining, but it's ultimately a labor of love (one that allows me to share my thoughts on my favorite subject: Americna Gothic). Best of luck with your blog!