Saturday, September 28, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#5

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

#5. "White Mule, Spotted Pig"

His Ownself outdoes himself with this 2007 novella (collected in The Shadows Kith and Kin).  The familiar elements of the Lansdale tale are all present, but "White Mule, Spotted Pig" also transcends into the realm of mythic narrative.

There's earthy humor aplenty to be found here, such as the reference to an abused wife who urinates into her husband's liquor jug before taking off from home: "Cheap as the stuff was he drank," it's a wonder "he could tell the difference."  Or consider the renowned hunter Nigger Joe, reputed "to be able to track a bird across the sky, a fart across the yard."  In an inspired moment of absurdity, a mule just noted for looking "quite noble" in its hilltop pen is suddenly zapped by lightning and keels over "in a swirl of heavenly fire and a cannon shot of flying mule shit."

The stricken critter belongs to main character Frank, a hapless dimwit who always "used his brain late in the game."  Frank, though,
isn't the kind of loathsome loser who recurs in Lansdale's work--the wretched transgressor slated for grim and ironic comeuppance.  A sympathetic figure, Frank comes from a low background but possesses higher aspirations.  He strives to win the annual Camp Rapture Mule Race not out of excess pride or in pure greed for the prize money; his dream is to be able to create a finer existence for himself.  The grandest reward from the endeavor might be a boost to his sense of self-worth: "I ain't never won nothing or done nothing right in my life, and I figure this here might be my chance," Frank tells Leroy (a mule trainer notorious for once having been caught humping a goat).  "You gettin' Jesus?" Leroy poses.  "I'm gettin' tired," Frank bluntly retorts.

To win the race, Frank is going to need a speedy beast, which brings us to the titular pair of legendary animals:
Once upon a time, there was this pretty white mule with pink eyes, and the mule was fine and strong and set to the plow early on, but he didn't take to it.  Not at all.  But the odder part of the story was that the mule took up with a  farm pig, and they became friends.  There was no explaining it.  It happened now and then, a horse or mule adopting their own pet, and that was what happened with the white mule and the spotted pig.
One night the mule broke loose, kicked the pig's pen down, and he and the pig, like Jesse and Frank James, headed for the hills.  Went into the East Texas greenery and wound in amongst the trees, and were lost to the farmer.  Only to be seen after that in glimpses and in stories that might or might not be true.  Stories about how they raided corn fields and ate the corn and how the mule kicked down pens and let hogs and goats and cattle go free.
Frank is astounded when he catches his first actual glimpse of the wild duo: "He had some strange feelings inside of him that he couldn't explain.  Some sensation of having had a moment that was greater than any moment he had had before."  Further under-scoring the majesty of White Mule, Frank compares the creature to an image of Pegasus: "Well, the mule didn't look like a horse, and it didn't have wings on its back, but it certainly had the bearing of the beast on the book's cover.  Like maybe it was from somewhere else from here; like the sky had ripped apart and the mule had ridden into this world through the tear."

The scenes where Frank, Leroy, and Nigger Joe track down and then attempt to train White Mule are wonderfully entertaining, and the story features the best climactic ride this side of Sleepy Hollow.
Still, it is Frank's interaction with White Mule and Spotted Pig following the race that ultimately resonates the most.  In the end, Lansdale has scripted not just a damn good tale, but a feel-good one as well.

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