Monday, June 25, 2012
Joe R. Lansdale's "Edge of Dark Water": Afloat on a River of Despair
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
Written by Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Edge of Dark Water on Amazon.com
If there's one common thread found in the best Joe Lansdale stories, it's this: Folks with no reason to get along are somehow able to unite against a common foe. In the pages of tales like Cold in July, Bubba Ho-Tep, and in his wildly entertaining Hap and Leonard series, you'll find unlikely alliances getting past their differences, kicking ass, taking names. In his latest novel, Edge of Dark Water, readers will find eccentric partnerships are still a big part of his oeuvre as a motley crew of teens and adults come together to honor the passing of a friend. Lansdale works with an ensemble of cunning teens longing for adventure, and damaged adults looking for redemption. In true Lansdale fashion, they'll need to overcome prejudice, dependency issues, shocking violence, and nature itself in order to succeed.
Edge of Dark Water takes us on a trip down the winding, treacherous Sabine River. The story opens with 16-year-old Sue Ellen and her friend Terry assisting Sue Ellen's father as he poisons fish from the river. Their lives in rural East Texas are wrought with poverty, drunkeness, and racism. Sue Ellen has a strong friendship with Terry, designated the town "sissy" because he’s a little neater and cleaner than everyone else. Rounding out a trio of friends is Jinx, a black teenager whose spiritedness lands her in constant trouble. Despite the rampant prejudice in their segregated town, the three get along swimmingly. Allied against lynchers, addicts, and lecherous fathers, the three friends are just about the only family they've got.
When the body of May Lynn, the town beauty, is uncovered - bound and weighted - from the river's bottom, Sue Ellen and her friends decide to deliver her ashes to Hollywood. It's their way of honoring a friend who spoke often of running away to become a famous actress. It's also a means of escape from a fate of ruination that only a crumbling and corrupt town can promise.
Sue Ellen’s quest is complicated when she finds in May Lynn’s diary a map to a stash of money. After burning May Lynn’s remains and unearthing the riches, the group crosses paths with the wrong people. A terrifying tracker named Skunk – a ruthless killer whose scent heralds his hulking presence - is dispatched to bring them back. Sue Ellen and her gang take to the water on a stolen raft, avoiding dangerous water snakes and braving calamitous weather. Their journey will take them from the deep depression of home and into the heart of peril. Along the way, they’ll bond further through intense trials and an ardent resolve to see things through.
Edge of Dark Water has the distinction of being one of a handful of books that have elicited a huge emotional response from me. I don't mean getting a little sentimental over a touching scene, or chuckling at a funny dialogue quip. I'm talking about being shaken to my core. In some ways, Edge of Dark Water is Lansdale's most brutal novel. I'm not speaking specifically of visceral brutality, though there is certainly plenty here. I'm talking about the core theme – the hopelessness, sadness, and confusion – of charging into the unknown, and putting on a brave face even if it's just for show. For each escalating peril faced by Sue Ellen, she hits harder, jumps higher, and cracks wiser because there is no turning back.
Every character in this book – from larger-than-life villains to willful teens - is wholly memorable and distinct. Sue Ellen and Jinx in particular resonate beyond the page and make this reader realize that my hardships are very small in comparison. You’ll see this novel compared to the works of Mark Twain, and that is an apt comparison. It’s not simply that Twain’s Huck Finn similarly charted his own destiny on a raft on the Mississippi. It's not the themes of abuse, racism, and violence that connect the two. Huck and Sue Ellen might have passed each other on that stretch of the Sabine. Maybe they do no more than nod knowingly to one another. Though their stories are decades apart (and written over a century apart), it's just possible that the two could have shared an intertwining moment on that dark, dark river.
I don't have any problem calling Edge of Dark Water a masterpiece. It's a book demanding your immediate attention, and a great companion piece to Lansdale favorites like The Bottoms and All the Earth Thrown to the Sky.