Thursday, September 26, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#6

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#6. "Mad Dog Summer"

In his introduction to "Mad Dog Summer," Joe R. Lansdale notes of his 1999 novella: "It has been compared, mostly favorably, to To Kill a Mockingbird, and that is my favorite novel, and perhaps my favorite film.  But, the influence is overrated.  I think if you write about the 1930s and the story is told from a young person's viewpoint, and if it has to do with racism, it's then considered influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird."  The author acknowledges a debt to the precursor novel, yet asserts that the memory of his parents was the greater influence on his tale.  Still, it's hard not to read "Mad Dog Summer" as a wonderful homage to Harper Lee.

As analogues of the Finches, the narrative presents thirteen-year old Harry, his tomboy younger sister "Tom," and their heroic and colorblind father (not an attorney like Atticus, but here serving as town constable).  There is a key scene of a Halloween night party,
and (as the title foretells) summertime problems with rabid animals.  Perhaps the most overt parallel, though, is the Boo Radley stand-in that Lansdale creates, in the legendary figure of the Goat Man:
Half goat, half man, he liked to hang around what was called the swinging bridge.  I had never seen him, but sometimes at night, out possum hunting, I thought maybe I heard him, howling and whimpering down there near the cable bridge that hung bold over the river, swinging with the wind in the moonlight, the beams playing on the metal cables like fairies on ropes.
He was supposed to steal livestock and children, and though I didn't know of any children that had been eaten, some farmers claimed the Goat Man had taken their livestock, and there were some kids I knew claimed they had cousins taken off by the Goat Man, never to be seen again.
It was said he didn't go as far as the main road because Baptist preachers traveled regular there on foot and by car, making the preaching rounds, and therefore making the road holy.  It was said he didn't get out of the woods that made the Sabine bottoms.  High land was something he couldn't tolerate.  He needed the damp, thick leaf mush beneath his feet, which were hooves.
This passage demonstrates the greatest strength of "Mad Dog Summer": its narration.  Harry is a natural-voiced youth (notice how Lansdale counters Lee by assigning the narratorial role to the male sibling) whose observations are colored by innocence.  The boy is forced to come of age in a time and place marked by despicable racism and brutal violence: a serial killer (although, as Harry acknowledges, that generation had no name for, and little concept of, such a monster) has been leaving a gruesome trail of mutilated women, but the town doesn't take much interest in the crimes when the early victims are only black prostitutes.  Harry tabs the Goat Man as the killer, but any reader who recalls Boo Radley knows Lansdale's version of the dreaded grotesque is bound for climactic redemption.

With its murder-mystery plot, the novella is nothing less than gripping.  It is also incredibly moving, filled with dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking action.  One of the most resonant lines of the piece, for example, is Harry's simple declaration in regards to his father, who is devastated when an innocent black man is scapegoated and lynched: "There's no way to explain how bad it hurts to hear your father cry."

Lansdale later expanded his narrative into the Edgar-Award-winning novel The Bottoms; the book makes for an even better read, as the author is afforded the opportunity to develop his cast of characters and their milieu.  But that is not to slight the original version, as "Mad Dog Summer" is easily appreciated by anyone who cherishes To Kill a Mockingbird, or captivating storytelling, period.

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