Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Joe R. Lansdale's "All the Earth Thrown to the Sky": Growing Up On The Run
All the Earth Thrown to the Sky (2011)
Written by Joe R. Lansdale
Joe R. Lansdale Official Site
Joe Lansdale's Blog
In the best books, a writer spins his or her yarn much like a spider laying web for its prey. The reader becomes hopelessly entangled. The eight-legged author has already administered poison from the first sentence. By the story's climax, feeding has well begun. The kicker is that we, the vulnerable cocooned reader, thank that author for swallowing us whole.
In this allegory, Joe R. Lansdale is akin to a black widow: hypnotic, down-and-dirty, and one of the most deadly on Earth. You'd never know it if you've ever spoken to the man or even just followed his twitter posts. He seems so full of cheer and enthusiasm, one would think his persona to be clever camouflage for trapping us hapless flies. You see, Joe Lansdale is from the old school where writers like Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and Richard Matheson cast webs with a sweet charm that belies the death blow. His east Texas flavor is like sweet tea laced with strychnine. Or, in keeping with my allegory, like a gorgeous, dew-soaked web hypnotically glistening in the sun. You struggle at first, but give in to the invitation of such brutal beauty knowing that death is really a reward.
But you've probably had enough metaphors for now. The point of this little piece is to let you know that Mr. Lansdale has recently released a very great new book. All the Earth Thrown to the Sky is his return to the young adult format previously taken back in the 90's with The Boar. Fans of his work know that Lansdale would never stoop to patronize his readers, no matter their age. Mr. Lansdale is certainly no snot-nosed juvenile, but he is a man who hasn't lost a sense of being a kid. One only need to read The Boar, and the excellent tale The Bottoms, to know he has one foot planted right back in the awkward stage of adolescence. Like all the best people, he's matured where it counts, but remained a kid in all the right ways. In keeping with that, his latest novel honors kids of all ages - by not sugar-coating a damn thing.
All the Earth Thrown to the Sky is the story of Jack Catcher, a young man living in Depression-era Oklahoma during a period of the worst Dust Bowl storms. Dense blowing dirt, dust, and debris pervades every aspect of the life of his fellow Oklahomans. After burying his parents, victims of the suffocating environmental and economic turmoil, he sets out on a great adventure to escape mountains of dust and poverty. His eyes and lungs assaulted by the oppressive wind, he his determined to make a new life. Winds once imprisoning him now blow with the hope of change.
Meeting up with whip-smart Jane, and her brother Tony, the three embark on a quest to find a new home free of the confines, sadness, and loss wrought from their buried home. Along the way, they encounter a slew of colorful characters, good and bad, These gray area heroes and villains guide them on their path to growing up fast, but on their own terms. Throughout the course of the story, they must use their wits, and summon shear strength of character, to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Navigating the multi-colored Dust Bowl, they weave in and out of situations involving brutal gangsters, cheating carnies, hoboes, and slave-drivers. Each encounter draws them closer together, yet also drives them apart. For each recognizable color of wind-strewn dust that blows in from surrounding states, so, too, is the spectrum of color in the characters motivations and actions. Growing up sometimes means growing apart, from friends, family, and home.
Once Mr. Lansdale starts describing the harsh winds of Oklahoma, you'll swear you're spitting up particles of dust as you read. When he describes the heat, sweat is dripping down your neck. Someone get me a glass of water! As we've come to expect, Lansdale excels in rich characterization, and creating a sense of place. He knows these places - the towns, swamps, and miles of dry earth - like the back of his hand. The language, customs, hopes, and fears specific to whatever area Lansdale describes is represented fully and with great respect to the region. People talk just as they would if you were standing right before them. They act not as we'd expect cliche story characters to act, but as very human subjects with insecurities, doubts, but also resilience and a sense-of-humor.
It's always great when a writer incorporates a little history in a tale. In this case, Mr. Lansdale draws not only from the Depression-era, but also peppers the story with recognizable characters from that period. Infamous people like Pretty Boy Floyd show up with regularity, allowing us to see why "criminals" or other folks operating in the underbelly could also be celebrated when there's not much future to look forward to. The orphans in our story take on a quest to protect a carnival fighter who may or may not be a good person. In dealing with some shady people, they are perhaps catching a glimpse of their own possible futures. Whether they resist, or give in, remains to be seen.
As always, there's a real heart - full of longing and nostalgia - beating at the center of Mr. Lansdale's book. It truly was created for an audience of all ages, and might serve to connect generations that have become so divided, we can no longer tear ourselves from personal computing devices when we speak. Because Lansdale is such a deft storyteller, those generations can find common ground by discussing All the Earth Thrown to the Sky. While it's a story set back several decades to a forgotten time, the echoes are being felt even in today's unpredictable climate. Mr. Lansdale's book allows us be informed, entertained, but most of all, aware that struggle is timeless when everything we hold dear can be thrown to the sky and scattered at a moment's notice.